Shiela Hollander opened the Petit Cafe on February 14, 2020 because it represented “a day of love; a joyous day, Valentine’s Day,” she said. But on March 16, along with restaurants throughout the Bay Area, the cafe was forced by the pandemic and Alameda County public health guidelines to shut its doors. Hollander chose to keep the cafe closed as regulations seesawed between partial openings and renewed lockdowns, but on October 8 Petit Cafe finally renewed operations.
Even before the lockdown, the three-year journey to renovate the 800-square-foot Oakland cafe at 411 30th Street in the Pill Hill area was arduous. As she jumped through the City of Oakland’s regulatory hurdles, Hollander sometimes wondered if her dreams of operating a cafe with healthy cuisine inspired by her mother’s native Argentina and Hollander’s travels or time living in Europe would ever be realized.
“I had a wonderful, diverse staff, with people from all races, ethnicities, and parts of the city,” she says. “We had indoor seating for 18 and outdoor seating at four tables for ten people.”
Since reopening, she says sales in the last month have been less than half of the numbers she saw during the one month the cafe was open in early spring.
Even so, enthusiasm is building, which Hollander credits to skill and expertise provided by “a wonderful and still diverse staff team,” manager Dan Edelman, and project coordinator Maria Fangras. “I’m thrilled to have five highly capable staff and Dan, who shares my love of vegetarian food and makes dressings, sauces and pastries that are unbelievable due to the combinations and flavors. He has a culinary background with expertise in seasonal foods. You can’t express it on Instagram: you have to taste it.” Fangras was instrumental in establishing delivery platforms (GrubHub and others). As a sommelier by training, she now works on obtaining alcohol licensing.
“Longterm, we’d like to open a happy hour with small plates,” says Hollander. “Not officially dinner, but tapas with beer and wine. That’s the future vision.”
In the meantime, the menu draws on childhood memories and adult philosophies and traditions. “My mom is from Argentina. We had family gatherings with my grandparents on Sundays. We’d have a big barbecue, with mollejas, a beef sweetbread. It’s funny, because I don’t eat meat anymore. We’d have fresh chimichurri, a sauce that has fresh spices. I enjoyed celebrating food and the cultural heritage unique to my family.”
The menu features a seasonal, plant-based menu, artisan beverages, local vendor partners (Red Bay Coffee, Firebrand Artisan Breads and Grand Bakery) and environment-friendly practices and products whenever possible. Whether your yen is for a Toasted Farro Bowl, Egg Salad Sandwich, Southwestern Quinoa Bowl, Quiche of the Moment, or the Red Bay Coffee concoctions (including vanilla bean and lavender lattes) and local fresh-baked goods, Hollander has you covered.
There is high demand during the breakfast hours for Firebrand’s croissants and Edelman’s lattes, sauces and baked goods made with in-house flavorings — “no syrups, fructose or artificial flavors,” Hollander vows. Recently, a Moroccan chickpea soup and grilled cheese sandwich have been added to the menu.
Because protecting the environment is important to Hollander, she says, “Going takeout isn’t my favorite thing.” To mitigate the impact, all of the to-go ware is compostable and no aluminum or new plastic bags are used in the kitchen. “I’m concerned society isn’t doing enough to protect future generations. In opening the cafe, I didn’t want to contribute to polluting the earth further,” she says.
Prior to reopening this fall, the cafe donated over 50 meals to the nearby Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. Hollander hopes to make it a monthly practice when the cafe has established firmer footing. “We donate to the homeless most days of the week. Our staff carry out food that we don’t sell each day and on their way home, they donate it to the homeless in the area. I also love supporting our local vendors, who let me start with really small orders.”
Promising the cafe will remain vegetarian and continue its allegiance to sustainable whole foods and eco-sensitive practices, Hollander knows it will be an uphill challenge to survive. For now, she rejoices in realizing a dream to share the foods and beverages she, her family, and customers enjoy.