Thanks to the city of Berkeley’s loose interpretation of one of its laws, along with support from the community and Elmwood commercial district, the Nabolom cooperative bakery says it will likely stay open after initially announcing that it was on track to go out of business by January.
The bakery co-op, which has had financial problems for years, announced at a community meeting last month that if they could not figure out how to generate more money they would have to shut down because they are two months late on their $3,886 rent and $33,000 in debt—$22,000 of which is on high interest personal credit cards.
“When we initially called the meeting, it was doubtful to me that we could go until December,” said Jim Burr, the co-op member in charge of the bakery’s finances. “I cannot say Nabolom has no problems, but we will be open through 2005.”
In the last week or so, several UC Berkeley housing cooperatives approached the bakery about starting a wholesale accounts. According to Burr, one wholesale account will allow them to start paying off the debt.
During the community meeting the co-op received thousands of dollars in promissory notes from customers. The notes are cash advances that the bakery has promised to pay back over time in baked goods. The initial contribution of $5,500 helped them pay off one month’s rent, and according to Burr, the contributions have continued to pour in.
One of the hurdles the bakery faced was the need to expand services, which would force them to change their use permit from a take-out to a quick-service restaurant. In the Elmwood district, there is a quota system that sets guidelines for how many of each kind of business can operate. According to a report by the city’s planning department, the quota for quick service is full.
The quota system was devised to insure diversity and to prevent restaurants, which are usually the most lucrative businesses, from taking over. Jeremy’s clothing store farther down on College Avenue faced the same problem when it tried to expand. A divided Zoning Adjustment Board narrowly approved the request.
Burr, however, believes that the city will probably look favorably on their expansion and not prevent them from securing a change in their use permit.
“Nabolom is a wonderful resource for the community,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who is a neighbor. “It’s an excellent example of a small locally owned business. The city should do everything we are allowed to do to keep their excellent bakery available.”
According to Andy Katz, the chair of the Zoning Adjustment Board, which would hear Nabolom’s request for a change, the city has some leeway in interpreting the law.
“At all times the [Zoning Adjustments Board] should keep the best interests of the neighborhood and the business district in mind,” even if that means exceeding a quota, said Katz
Both Worthington and Dave Fogerty, from the Economic Development Department, said Nabolom’s case should be less controversial than Jeremy’s because the clothing store wanted to take over a space that occupied a quota spot reserved for arts and crafts, while Nabolom will stay within the food category. Both said Nabolom, which has been open for 28 years, is well-respected in the neighborhood, a point taken into consideration by the city.
Jon Moriarty, the president of the Elmwood Merchants’ Association, said he does not have a problem with Nabolom’s exceeding the quota. He thinks the system needs to be reinterpreted anyway.
“I think it should be restaurants and everybody else,” he said, instead of classifying each type of restaurant and each type of business.
“Nobody up here would say a word,” he added. “Everybody wants them to stay, they have been around longer than most of us.”
Burr said the financial situation has forced the seven current co-op members to develop a smarter business model. In the past, he said, members hired friends and then were too shy to confront each other when problems developed.
“I think that Nabolom, due to the loose structure, has been more tolerant of people with eccentricities than other work places,” said Burr, who confessed that they’ve taken on people with substance abuse problems or people that did not have much baking experience.
“People would tolerate and tolerate and tolerate until things had reached a point where they couldn’t deal with each other any more,” said Burr.
“They just didn’t really get their act together,” said one patron who asked not to be named. “It was this hippy-dippy sort of unorganized thing. The good news is they are open to new things.”
The same customer added that he’s been going there since 1982 and respects their effort to make the business as egalitarian as possible.
“It would be really awful if that place was not there,” he said.