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An SF Coffee Company Wants to Build a Radically Inclusive Cafe in Berkeley

Race, culture, and economics through coffee at Wrecking Ball’s East Bay outpost

Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters/Facebook

Diversity and inclusion will be the focus of a new coffee shop headed for North Berkeley. Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters is opening its second Bay Area location in the former Philz Coffee space at 1600 Shattuck Avenue, hopefully by early May.

“It’s really about building the trust in the community, in potential investors’ eyes, and for us as well — that the vision we have is something we can make real,” Cho told Eater SF. “Berkeley feels like a good spot for that, better than Cow Hollow. That’s not somewhere you launch something about diversity and inclusion.”

Nick Cho and Trish Rothgeb opened the first Wrecking Ball cafe on Union Street about five years ago. Since then, it’s made national headlines for calling off a $40,000 contract to serve drinks at Dreamforce due to Salesforce’s relationship with U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the age of Donald Trump. Now, Cho and Rothgeb are looking to make their values even more explicit with the next Wrecking Ball.

“We’re coming to it from a high-end coffee background but we’re not going to be promoting a $12 cup of coffee,” Cho says.

Cho sees most cafes as falling into one of two arenas: They’re either very focused on coffee quality but don’t care much about the community (“more of a white normative cafe culture,” Cho says) or they’re very focused on building a community space but don’t make the best drinks. Through hiring a diverse staff and promoting a culture of inclusion, Cho hopes to show respect and intention across the board. “That dividing line... we bridge that while also developing a menu that can serve more than your pinky-in-the-air coffee connoisseur,” Cho says.

Part of that inclusion means acknowledging that a lot of people don’t drink coffee. “We’re intending to decenter the coffee a bit — not completely but I would say significantly,” Cho says, adding that Wrecking Ball’s baristas will give as much attention to a tea lemonade as an espresso.

The two-story cafe will get some fresh paint, a new coffee bar, and a new look. Beyond the unique space, Cho was drawn to the specific neighborhood. It sits just steps away from Cheese Board, Chez Panisse, and other culinary legends — it’s not exactly an area engulfed in active gentrification or battling for its own cultural survival. But it’s still a much more diverse neighborhood than, say, Cow Hollow, and known for its open-minded lefty values.

“I wouldn’t feel good about dropping something in West Oakland or some other East Bay neighborhoods and saying we have this ambitious vision,” Cho says. “I feel like we have to earn people’s trust first.

“What does this Korean-American immigrant guy have to contribute to the conversation about race and culture and economics through a cafe? There’s not a whole lot of reasons why folks should trust us but I know people in general give us a chance with skeptical eyes. Hopefully we can show something that’s radically new and different enough where it does help inspire and inform new ways of thinking about what community can be and what business can be within different kinds of communities.”