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Liba, the Popular Downtown Oakland Falafel Bar, Has Closed Due to the Coronavirus Crisis

The East Bay street food pioneer led a new wave of Bay Area food trucks in the late aughts

One of Liba’s falafel bowls
One of Liba’s falafel bowls

When Liba Falafel first took to the streets in 2009, it was one of only a small handful of non-taco food trucks that had started to proliferate in the Bay Area at the time. This was well before big food truck rallies like Off the Grid became an everyday feature of the local food scene — when the idea that you could order a falafel sandwich, Indian-inflected burrito, or red velvet cupcake off a truck still felt like an utter novelty.

The business remained popular even after going through several permutations over the past decade, as founder Gail Lillian adapted it to the changing times — most notably by retiring the truck in 2016 to focus on Liba, its fast-casual restaurant incarnation. But it turns out that the coronavirus pandemic was the one challenge the restaurant could not survive. June 10 was the restaurant’s last day of business, as Berkeleyside Nosh first reported.

“The things that don’t work about this industry were magnified by the problems that I was about to face while navigating operations during COVID times,” Lillian tells Eater SF.

In the end, the core of Liba’s business model — and the thing that distinguished the restaurant and made it successful — proved to be a big part of its undoing. The restaurant was, at its heart, as much a salad bar as it was a falafel restaurant, and its most popular feature, going back to its food truck days, was its extensive, seasonally changing self-serve toppings bar, which was always loaded with items like braised eggplant, smoked apple chutney, pickled carrots, and a slew of housemade sauces and dips. Part of what made the restaurant fun was the physical process of customers loading up their bowl or sandwich with whatever toppings they liked, in whatever sequence or quantity they liked.

Liba’s self-serve salad and toppings bar, prior to the pandemic
Liba’s self-serve salad and toppings bar, prior to the pandemic

But of course, features like buffet tables and self-serve salad bars are specifically verboten during this time of heightened safety protocols and will likely continue to be for much of the foreseeable future. As a result, during the takeout- and delivery-only phase of the shelter in place, Lillian says, she wound up “personally dressing every customized bowl and pita through online orders,” Lillian says. “It’s just not efficient. It’s not the business model I signed up for. It’s not efficient labor-wise. It’s not efficient dollar-wise.”

Still, the falafel salads and bowls at Liba were takeout- and delivery-friendly enough — perfectly portable and able to endure much jostling with no ill effects — that she suspects she would have been able to make things work, if only the long-term financial prospects for the business didn’t seem so grim. As Lillian noted in her Instagram post announcing the closure, she had only finished paying off all of the debt she took on in order to open Liba just last year. And she didn’t see any way she’d be able to keep the business afloat without taking on thousands upon thousands of dollars in new debt — a risk she just couldn’t allow herself to take.

Indeed, Lillian, who runs a side business as a consultant for small business owners, says she’s afraid for all of the small restaurant owners who are going to reopen and stay open for the next couple of months in the interest of “seeing how it goes.” In the meantime, they’ll quickly accumulate tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and pretty soon, they won’t feel like they can exit the industry at all — they’ll be forced to continue struggling just to avoid financial ruin.

“I think it’s going to be a silent problem,” Lillian says.

For her part, Lillian still has a cookie-decorating side gig that she runs as a cottage food business, and she doesn’t rule out the possibility of starting some other kind of food business in the future. One thing she’ll rule out, however, is opening another restaurant.

“The debt thing just made me feel really trapped,” she says. “And there is no great sense of liberation with owning a restaurant in the first place.”