By Kim Westerman
Dec 3, 2014
How many times do we go to restaurants each month—or week—and fail to really comprehend the physical process of pulling together all the elements that a restaurant requires, from permitting to plumbing, to every hoop jumped in between?
I tend to notice aesthetically pleasing design, but don’t go much beyond my hedonistic pleasure in identifying its lineage. My encounter with Travis Wirt, owner of Black Creek Builders, changed all that. Or rather, I should say, my encounter with many compelling Oakland restaurant spaces that Wirt has had his hand in made me aware of the process in a way I hadn’t considered before.
I got wind of Black Creek Builders from Hollie Hardy, a poet-friend and long-time employee of the company. She had seen a piece I wrote for Bay Area Bites on burgers, which included Handlebar and Victory Burger, both Black Creek projects. And she asked me if I had ever thought of covering the process of opening a restaurant from much earlier on than when it opens its doors to guests. I had not. And when I heard about the spaces that were forthcoming, I jumped at the opportunity to interview three owners of soon-to-be shiny new restaurants, along with Wirt, about what they do, and how.
Analiesa Gosnell, co-owner of Clove & Hoof butcher shop and restaurant with John Blevins, didn’t know anything about meat until she started working for Prather Ranch Meat Companyabout five years ago. But that brief experience made her want to learn the art of butchery. Her family had owned a cattle ranch in Siskiyou County back in the 1850s and, perhaps not coincidentally, the beef served at the new restaurant will be from nearby Jenner Ranch. Clove & Hoof will mark the first restaurant/butcher-direct sale of their grass-fed brand. As she and Blevins went through the process of opening Clove & Hoof on Oakland’s Broadway-40th St. corridor, they realized that their priority would be to listen to the desires of the neighborhood, so the kinds of sustainably raised meat they focus on will first be responsive to customer demand.
The Clove & Hoof concept is simple: half butcher shop in the whole-animal tradition and half casual lunch and takeout focus. Blevins is leading the charge in the kitchen, and his menu includes a burger with two four-ounce patties, loads of gooey cheese and chopped romaine, house-smoked meats, and Southern-style barbecue. They opened on November 20 and the plan is to open for dinner in a few months.
Because neither partner had experience in building a restaurant from the ground up, they looked to Black Creek Builders to step in and help them through the often-arduous process. When I asked Gosnell what made the difference between a traditional construction company and one focused primarily on restaurants, she cited two things: the permitting process and the codes that apply specifically to restaurants that many builders are unfamiliar with. “Travis just has an easy vibe around all the stuff that stresses me out as a first-time restaurant owner,” says Gosnell, adding that Wirt has provided invaluable design consultation as well.
When I talked to Wirt about how he became the go-to restaurant guy in Oakland, he admitted it was somewhat by accident. He had been building custom homes in the hills when he decided to start his own business. Then, the recession hit. His first restaurant project was Actual Café in 2009, and it was truly from scratch. The space was “cold-shell,” meaning completely unfinished. Thus began his grand adventure over the last six years, figuring out how to work with uncooperative structures, understanding the nuances of complicated utility needs, and ensuring that spaces have the back-end infrastructure they need to be sustainable, and even grow.
By all accounts, he’s a great boss, too. He re-invests what he earns back into the business, and in his employees. He believes that a strong company must retain the expertise of those who carry out the work. So, he wants his employees to flourish and be happy, and he contributes to that goal by providing education, hiring locally, with a diverse team in mind.
Another project Wirt and his team are knee-deep in is CommonWealth MicroPub, in the former Café Biere location on Adeline between 40th St. and Yerba Buena Ave. in Emeryville. I spoke with co-owner Ahna Adair about progress.
Wirt had helped with their façade-improvement project, which grants money to businesses owners who wish to improve and preserve the city’s historic architecture, at their Oakland space, CommonWealth Café and Public House.
When Adair and her husband Ross set about opening the micropub offshoot, which will be a British pub with many local twists, they thought they had a fairly simple turnkey situation. It turns out they did not, and Black Creek came in to do the heavy lifting. Adair says, “The Black Creek people have been good guides along the way, are very well-versed in all the regulations of opening a restaurant.”
The most recent space I visited, and the one furthest out from completion is Mad Oak, with a planned opening in January of 2015 in the former Oasis club spot on 12th St. in Oakland, between Madison and Oak (hence, the name). Brothers Daniel and Ben Cukierman, who cut their teeth in the business in 1997, running a bar at The Shattuck Hotel where their father was a partner (and then as owners of the Shattuck Down Low nightclub), have a “bar ‘n’ yard” planned for the space, with a rooftop garden, 40 beers on tap, and a food-truck program. The rooftop garden alone is destination-worthy, a giant space that will include a living wall of plants.
The Cukiermans first connected with Wirt when he came in to the bar they managed, and when they called for bids for their current project, they chose Black Creek because Wirt “asked all the right questions,” says Daniel, adding that “the Black Creek folks know a lot about the function and flow of restaurants, which is important in designing a space from scratch.”
What I gathered from talking with these three restaurant owners about their projects, which share several common denominators, but also each have angles unique to their own spaces, people, and desired outcomes, is that Black Creek Builders is fast making a well-deserved name for itself in the business of constructing restaurants. And Wirt and crew couldn’t have chosen a better part of the country to focus on, given the East Bay’s burgeoning prominence in the national food scene.