On the eve of its 50th anniversary, the East Bay’s top destination restaurant discovers its parking lot community
By Derrick Schneider | Illustrations by Cathy Raingarden
In March 2020, when Covid shelter-in-place orders began, the Bay Area food community gave a collective, worried gulp. Restaurants don’t run on high margins, so any sort of business disruption can spell doom. Many wondered what would become of our famous destination restaurant, then looking toward its 50th anniversary celebration in August.
Across the five decades since it opened, Chez Panisse has had an immeasurable effect on how America thinks about food. When founder Alice Waters chose to focus her menu on high-quality ingredients from small local farms, she seeded a new era of American cuisine. Farmers’ markets began proliferating around the country, and farm-to-table became a term of art. This legacy means that the restaurant is more than just a place where foodies like to eat.
“We have a farm that grows exclusively for us,” says Varun Mehra, who became general manager of the restaurant just as the pandemic hit.
Mehra was referring to Bob Cannard’s Green String Farm, which has supplied Chez Panisse with fresh produce for over 30 years. “We knew that if we weren’t buying from that farm, they’d have to change their business dramatically,” he says.
That first week, Chez Panisse emptied its refrigerators into the hands of furloughed staff and did what businesses everywhere did at that moment: They met electronically to concoct a plan for the weeks to come.
“We thought ‘Let’s put together a market of things we’d be using if we were open,’” he says. “Our criteria was to ask if we would use this in the kitchen. If we would, it felt like the right thing to sell. Good, clean, and fair are the criteria we use.”
Within two weeks, staff were assembling CSA-type boxes of farm produce to sell online directly to the public, distributing them in the parking lot next to the building.
“Square sites were not a specialty of ours before 2020,” says Mehra with a laugh, echoing the awkward moment that even many of its most tech-savvy patrons encountered while trying to figure out how and when to order.
Word spread fast as the restaurant posted to social media, and the first 30 boxes were gone in a flash. As shelter-in-place rules dragged on into April, staff augmented the basic box with new ingredients as other vendors made them available.
During the summer, they began to offer prepared food.
“This was never a place that was geared for takeout,” Mehra says. “We had to do things like adjust the pizza dough so it would hold up better.” The chefs came up with dishes that worked at room temperature as they tweaked restaurant favorites for takeout. A perfect rare cut of steak was difficult to offer at the market, but a duck breast salad, which works warm or at room temperature, or a potato gratin that weathers reheating, both worked well. It took months to smooth out the kinks.
Now a popular Sunday event, the Chez Panisse market sports a display of colorful seasonal produce surrounded by makeshift counters where staff, following current Covid safety protocols, ring up customers on iPads. Pre-orders packed in boxes and bags line a table or two, and inventory like wine, bread, olive oil, and dried pasta spreads out through the lot below the apartments that serve as the restaurant’s offices. (Customers can also place orders for pickup at the restaurant’s front patio Wednesday through Sunday.)
The Sunday market created a whole new way for the restaurant to engage with the community. “There’s been more room for partnerships and creativity,” says Mehra. An example is the partnership with Bluma Flower Farm, a rooftop grower in Berkeley. The flowers didn’t work for the restaurant’s needs, but the market can resell bouquets to customers.
This new engagement has created new types of fans.
“With our regulars from when we were open,” says Mehra, “a certain percentage took to the market. They felt familiar with the ingredients, and they trusted us to give them advice. But I feel like there’s a set of people who are regulars at the market now who feel this set up works better. Now we’ve got all kinds of different niche regulars. We’ve got Saturday night regulars. We’ve got pizza regulars. Spit-roasted chicken regulars.”
It makes sense. Even in the upstairs seating, which has always been more accessible than the downstairs part of the restaurant, you’ll pay a fair amount, and you’ll need to have the time for a leisurely meal. With the market, you can pop by while running errands and maybe just pick up a dozen crumbly butter walnut cookies.
Beyond bringing new customers, the market has helped the farmers who produce the distinctive ingredients at the core of the Chez Panisse cuisine. Mehra estimates that the market is moving about as much produce as the restaurant did pre-pandemic (although orders work differently now, so it’s not a perfect comparison). It’s also been a way to welcome back some of the furloughed staff.
The new groove at Chez Panisse was a beacon of light shining through the gloomy winter, but as infection rates spiked and vaccines were unavailable for most, it remained a tense situation for everyone in the restaurant industry. “You rely on other people’s behavior at work and outside work because you’re working right next to them,” Mehra. “You can have your mask on, but you still need to taste things. Winter was quite challenging in terms of Covid protocols, safety, and comfort.”
As vaccination rates increased and restrictions were lifted, the Chez Panisse parking lot market became a joyous meeting place for a cooped-up community, and many asked if the market would continue past October when the restaurant plans to reopen. Mehra says he doesn’t know. They’ve seen the enthusiasm, but the market requires logistics and staffing that might be difficult to continue. Similarly, the restaurant will be pushing back its 50th anniversary celebration until people can travel more easily.
What does Mehra personally like about the market? “The ice cream,” he quips. But then he pauses. “It’s the day of the week when you see people run into each other. There’s more time to have a conversation and not feel rushed. It’s a nice mix. It’s regulars; it’s staff who are furloughed and in the neighborhood; it’s a nice cross section of extended family and friends and community and new people.”
Mehra describes their experience at Chez Panisse as like a little cross section of the ebb and flow of the pandemic.
“The market has adjusted this way and that based on health and safety. We were trying to understand the tides as they were happening.
“Of all the things we do, the Sunday market is the most fulfilling. You can interact with people. There’s something about the market that feels like it was a nice little glue for the community.” ♦
Freelance writer and computer programmer Derrick Schneider wrote frequently for Edible East Bay through the magazine’s first five years in publication. His Summer 2006 story “Nowhere Else but Here: The Context of Berkeley’s Food Revolution” gave a history of Chez Panisse that drew a connection between the restaurant’s dedication to “good, clean, and fair” food and characteristics of the Free Speech Movement that rocked Berkeley and the nation in the late 1960s.