HOMEROOM EXPANDS TO MEET DEMAND
BY SARAH HENRY • PHOTOS BY DAN JUNG
Homeroom proved an instant hit with local diners when it opened in February 2011. Who would have predicted that a single-themed restaurant run by two women with no formal culinary training serving a comfort classic most Americans are raised on would be such a success? But it is: Witness the snaking lines out the door at this off-the-beaten-path location in North Oakland’s Mosswood Park neighborhood.
Indeed the 48-seat mac ’n’ cheese mecca has proven so popular that owners Allison Arevalo and Erin Wade have expanded. A new outpost down the street from the restaurant is designed to serve their takeout and catering customers, along with large parties (who can, mercifully, make a reservation at the new spot). Homeroom To-Go isn’t all about the cheese: It will also carry in-house condiments like salad dressings and chocolate and caramel sauce. It’s slated to open its doors mid-November.
Not bad for a business based on Ronzoni elbow pasta and béchamel sauce. The restaurant serves around a dozen different takes on macaroni and cheese. Customers can choose creamy or panko-baked crunchy versions and a couple that nod to local producers such as Mac the Goat with Laura Chenel chèvre and Mexican Mac with Niman Ranch chorizo. They’d like to source more local produce or products, says Wade, but few nearby farms, cheese, or pasta producers can meet their volume needs or delivery demands.
The restaurant’s top seller is the fragrant Gilroy Mac, all creamy Gouda, pecorino, and garlic, of course. The Classic Mac uses Willows-based Rumiano Cheese Company cheddar aged 18 months, while the Greek-inspired Macximus adds feta to the mix. Each December, a Point Reyes Blue Cheese Mac makes a brief appearance. There are options for gluten-free and vegan folk. The vegan mac gets its oozy texture thanks to tofu and soymilk.
The menu also offers luxe mac ’n’ cheese options that mom likely didn’t make. Dungeness Crab Mac is dressed up with Havarti and Old Bay seasoning. The Ivy Leaguer: Truffle Mac features black truffle Gouda. Arevalo and Wade admit to a few misadventures while trying to fashion an Asian-influenced mac—think sweet and sour for starters—before hitting on a Sriracha and ginger butter combo that worked. Oh, and lest you think the place is mere child’s play: There are local brews on tap and wine too.
Homeroom’s retro-nostalgia classroom style is designed to appeal to big and little kids alike. There’s a large chalkboard reading A is for Apple, B is for Beer, C is for Cheese. On one cheddar-colored wall, customers can doodle. A communal table boasts reclaimed wood from a school’s bleacher seats. Repeat customers have “library cards” complete with gold stars signifying purchases; they’re stored in wooden card catalogs. Checks arrive on graffiti-enhanced clipboards. It’s where cool meets cute.
The not-too-cool-for-school theme runs through the restaurant partners’ cookbook, The Mac + Cheese Cookbook: 50 Simple Recipes from Homeroom, America’s Favorite Mac and Cheese Restaurant (Ten Speed Press, 2013). Recipe instructions are “lesson plans,” vegetable sides reside in the “extra credit” chapter, and the nostalgia-inducing desserts like Banana Crème Pie are named “finals,” natch.
This is mac ’n’ cheese as culinary mashup: simple and sophisticated, (relatively) cheap yet chic. And it’s not just a pasta-in-creamy-sauce joint. Salads and sides are available to cut all that cheesy, gooey carbo-loading. And dessert: Their take on the Oreo cookie, topped with sea salt, has a firm following. They’ve hit a sweet spot in the ‘hood: Seniors and young families snag tables early, the working set piles in during the middle of the evening, later the younger hipster and college crowd call Homeroom home. There’s even a steady tourist clientele, drawn in to try a traditional American dish.
Arevalo and Wade aren’t just budding restaurant entrepreneurs. They’re new moms too. They’ve simultaneously birthed two businesses and two babies each. “The last time we were both pregnant we completed our cookbook,” says Wade, 33, a Lake Merritt resident and former lawyer who has also worked as a line cook and pastry chef. “And we found that whether with writing a cookbook then or overseeing a business expansion now, the deadline of having kids on the way actually helped us because it caused us to be even more efficient with our time.” As Wade points out: Nobody asks a male business owner how he runs a business and has a young family. Duly noted. “Some people assume our husbands run the business or cut the checks; it’s insulting. This is our thing,” adds Arevalo, 35, who lives in Montclair and previously worked in marketing.
“Having business experience prior to opening a restaurant really helped,” says Arevalo, who learned to cook as part of growing up in an Italian clan. “We were cautious about how much we spent.”The pair are proud of the investment in their staff, a loyal crew, most of whom live in Oakland. “When people talk about local sourcing they forget about the labor force,” says Wade, “but we have made a big commitment to training our staff and that’s paid off too.”