A sharp contrast to sleek coffeehouses with high-end finishes, the ambiance of Actual Café in Oakland, Calif., mirrors its diverse, urban surroundings.
"The feeling is slightly gritty, which matches our neighborhood," says Sal Bednarz, who created the concept in December 2009.
Comprising 1,800 sq. ft. with about 40 seats, the café serves coffee and simple food amid exposed ceiling beams, a 100-year-old concrete floor and repurposed countertops. "I live in this neighborhood, and this is a spot we didn't have," Bednarz says.
The diverse demographic includes the young and old, working-class patrons, students and artists of all colors and nationalities. "We try to be accessible and keep the price point lower," Bednarz says. "This is a neighborhood coffee shop that's more about the neighborhood than the menu."
FE&S spoke to Bednarz about his operation, equipment and plans for the future.
FE&S: Please describe your menu.
SB: We offer standard coffee drinks using an organic blend that is specific to our café. It's the same type for both our brew and espresso. We grind our own beans and brew in batches, as opposed to by the cup. Coffee makes up more than 30 percent of our revenue. We also offer fresh-squeezed orange juice and lemonade. In addition, our operation provides a modern soda fountain experience for which we make our own syrups. In terms of food, we have sandwiches served on thick-sliced white and wheat bread, in addition to empanadas and frittatas. We also serve soup and pastries. Our egg sandwich is the most popular. The weekend brunch is our busiest time, and where the poached egg plates and bacon parmesan waffle are popular.
FE&S: How does your foodservice equipment support the menu?
SB: At about 300 sq. ft., our kitchen is simple and small. Our service line, where orders are plated, is out front next to the espresso station. This includes all of our cook-to-order equipment, including the toaster and microwave. The kitchen has all of our batch and washing equipment. This includes a convection oven, panini grill, one two-door refrigerator, an undercounter refrigerator, one two-door freezer, a food processor, food warmers and a mixer.
FE&S: What new equipment have you added?
SB: In the beginning of this year, when the bakery we used went out of business, we began doing more on-site baking. As a result, we upgraded our oven and purchased new equipment to support this initiative. We bake off our pastries and cookies as well as roast vegetables and bake our empanadas and frittatas in the ovens. All of our equipment is electric.
FE&S: What are the most important considerations when purchasing equipment?
SB: The main factors are capacity, reliability, availability of parts and support from local vendors. We recently replaced an oven that had caught fire. Unfortunately, this wasn't the first time we've had oven issues. We now are utilizing two less expensive ovens, because we can't be without one.
FE&S: What equipment innovations have helped you in your business?
SB: My needs are simple. I'm looking for dependable equipment. I haven't found many options when looking for reliable compact ovens. We are open seven days a week, up to 17 hours a day. I can't have my equipment down for maintenance.
FE&S: What technology is invaluable for beverage foodservice?
SB: I have a 30-year-old espresso machine, a soda carbonator that is the simplest model out there and a hand-leverage juicer. We're not high tech and don't expect to become high tech. We use traditional equipment for aesthetic reasons and because I don't want to spend a lot of money on these items. With margins what they are, the equipment we use serves us well.
FE&S: What plans do you have over the next year for your foodservice program?
SB: Mostly, we're trying to streamline operations and do things as efficiently as possible. We're working on point-of-sale programming as well as better organizations and systems. We have a base menu of top sellers and specials that keeps things interesting, so there are no plans to grow our menu significantly. I just hired a manager and cook. We're still in growth mode. But as we go through major structure changes, I don't want to expand too quickly. Consequently, I don't do much marketing. The neighborhood around us is growing, and business is increasing through word of mouth. The most important thing right now is to maintain our high standards and service. The rest will take care of itself.