Community service, fair wages, plus some healthy and flavorful takeout, all in one package
By Rachel Trachten | Photos by Cheryl Angelina Koehler
If there’s been one theme in the 2021 economic recovery, it’s that workers are demanding higher wages and better working conditions. But for Gabriel Cole, CEO and cofounder of the Emeryville-based social enterprise company Just Fare, that was the goal long before the shutdowns.
Just Fare offers kitchen consulting services, office catering, a delivery-only restaurant, and a charitable community kitchen all under one roof. The motto: “To be a force for good while minding the bottom line to ensure the company can sustain itself over time and create more opportunities for our employees and communities.”
Just Fare’s starting wage is $22 per hour plus benefits.
The Road to Fair Wages
Cole started his food career 20 years ago serving a school in San Francisco where the administration asked him to balance the budget by cutting his employees’ wages. He walked away to a tech company gig, where he created jobs for most of his previous staff.
Moving up to Airbnb and Google at a time when chefs were being recruited away from top-notch Bay Area restaurants, he saw what one could do with unlimited budgets.
“The Google food experience introduced me to a world where cooks could receive good working conditions, good wages, and good benefits. The 15 years prior to that working in kitchens, I didn’t know that was possible.”
By Chance, a Community Kitchen
By 2009, Cole (with Gavin Crynes) had co-founded a food and farm consultancy called Fare Resources. It evolved into Just Fare, which before the pandemic employed 70 people catering 6,000 meals weekly to local businesses. Their hot meals, salad and sandwich bars, and grab & go snacks are healthy and flavorful, and purchasing dollars go as directly as possible to local producers and distributors prioritizing organic, equitable, and humane practices. When asked if sourcing through locals Mandela Partners, Veritable Vegetable, and Hodo Soy costs more, Cole says, “It sure does,” but it’s another example of walking the talk on supporting the community.
When offices abruptly shut down in March 2020, Cole says Just Fare lost 95% of their revenue and went down to four employees overnight. To rescue the value of their supplies, they looked to ongoing relationships with community-based organizations, and by investing some of their own funds and securing a federal Paycheck Protection Program grant, they started feeding the local community.
“The Community Kitchen was born out of the pandemic and out of a desire to keep our lights on and keep our staff employed,” says Cole. “While always aspiring to have a charitable arm, we launched our community kitchen model on a wing and a prayer with the help of the first round of PPP.”
The nonprofit Community Kitchen is funded by public and private sources including the Oakland Public Education Fund, Stephen and Ayesha Curry’s Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation, and an Alameda County CARES grant. With this funding, Community Kitchen prepared close to 109,000 meals for 22 community-based organization partners in 2020, and has been donating about 5,000 meals per week to organizations including Oakland Unified School District, YMCA of the East Bay, East Bay Queer Arts Center, and Negus in Nature in 2021.
LifeLong Medical Care has received 450 Just Fare meals weekly for its community health clinics, which provide health care and social services to underserved people. Kara de la Paz, a development associate for the nonprofit, says, “The meals are both healthy and tasty. People are happy and grateful to know they’ll receive food consistently.” She adds that clients appreciate the choice of meat or vegetarian entrées and the generous use of fresh herbs and veggies.
Just Fare’s executive chef, Ian Humphrey, says that feeding clients like those at LifeLong helps keep his staff motivated. Worker morale is clearly a top priority, and leadership has sometimes taken less pay to assure full wages for staff. Friday meetings, called Kitchen Standup, reflect the camaraderie, with announcements of the number of nonprofit clients served (272,433 as of late June). A friendly competition to help minimize food waste via a high-tech tracking system called Leanpath awards the Leanpath Champion’s boxing belt each week to the person who has used the system to best effect. Cole says that Iran Durades wins the belt more often than anyone.
Turnover is low among Community Kitchen staff, and Humphrey says the team definitely takes pride in putting out really good food for a really good cause. “They are having a true impact on our community and on the world.”
With some offices now reopening and special events being scheduled, the kitchen is again becoming a bustling place, and everyone is pleased about the recent launch of Just Fare’s delivery-only restaurant featuring Mediterranean-inspired offerings like Crispy Cardamom Wings, House-Made Labneh Dip, Carrot and Farro Salad, and Harissa Braised Pork.
Managing four different food services in one smallish kitchen has been a “daily balancing act,” says Humphrey, who looks forward to their eventual move to a larger kitchen space in Oakland. Until then, the teams at Just Fare and Community Kitchen are making their complex operation work.
“It’s an ever-evolving process,” says Cole. “Our mindset over the past 14 months has been to listen to the market, take it month by month, and stay adaptable. Our goal is to make delicious food, offer great jobs, and have a positive community impact.”
Rachel Trachten, Edible East Bay’s associate editor, writes about food and gardening in connection to social justice, education, business, and the environment. View her stories at racheltrachten.contently.com.