What Do Respect, Honesty and Transparency Have to Do With Food?

farm-animal-cookies

What kind of restaurant would list “respect, honesty and transparency” as key values on their website?

The kind of restaurant I would want to invest in, it turns out.

I just love serendipity (the effect, not the movie that my wife made me watch recently). Even better, I love serendipity when it happens at the intersection of multiple things I hold dear.

That’s what happened with a new restaurant called Gather that opens this week in the new David Brower Center in downtown Berkeley.


It all started just a few weeks ago on Thanksgiving. We were gracefully invited over to a family Thanksgiving dinner at a friends house. It was my wife and me, our two friends (a married couple), and his entire family. We had great food, interesting conversation and a fun time. When you live in a city away from family, it’s nice to be invited to spend holidays with other adopted families sometimes.

Anyways, our friend’s brother-in-law got to talking about a new restaurant that he’s going to be working for. The concept for the restaurant sounded really interesting. They were planning to be as organic, local and sustainable as humanly possible.

I wanted to learn more, and it turns out the restaurant was looking for a few final investors before opening in three weeks. We were introduced to the CEO over email and I started digging into details about the restaurant.

The Glamorous Life of a Flexitarian

My wife and I have been “flexitarians” for about the past 6 or 7 years. We decided to cut back on eating meat (especially factory-farmed meat) after passing some enormous cattle feed lots on I-5 on a trip to L.A. one year.

Being a flexitarian isn’t always easy to describe to people. Usually, we just end up saying that one of us is a vegetarian when we don’t want to have the whole conversation about why.

Basically, we don’t have any problem with people eating meat. We enjoy a good steak now and then, and eat poultry and fish a couple of times a month.

The issue we have is more with the way animals are treated by the factory farming system that has taken over the mainstream American diet. We also don’t like what that system has done to the environment or farmers over the past few decades.

It’s not exactly the most uplifting dinner conversation, so we end up avoiding meat when we don’t know where it came from. That’s fine with us because we really enjoy eating vegetarian anyways.

The issues of food politics have recently been popularized by people like Michael Pollan and the movie Food, Inc. People are starting to catch on (at least in certain socio-economic groups) that we need to pay more attention to our food, for our health, our environment and the stability of our world.

Restaurants and grocery stores are starting to catch on, too. Our neighborhood grocery store called Bi Rite Market is really great about supporting local farmers and choosing organic, sustainable and naturally raised meats and produce. In our neighborhood at least, it’s getting easier to eat according to our values.

This little utopian bubble we live in is hopefully the start of something that will change the way food is created and shared around the country. That’s where the restaurant Gather comes in.

Organic, Sustainable and Expensive

Even though many of the restaurants in our neighborhood try to serve local, organic and sustainable foods, most of them only do so “whenever possible.” That little phrase leaves the door open to cutting corners without having to make a statement about it to diners. The other problem with our food utopia so far is that it tends to cost an arm-and-a-leg.

We were impressed by the vision for Gather restaurant because they aim to solve both of those problems and to be something completely new and ambitious in the restaurant world. They scrutinize every single ingredient that goes into the food, as well as the materials for the restaurant. From the locally recycled wood tables to the reused-vodka-bottle lighting to the all-organic liquor, beer and wine to the grass-fed pasture-raised beef, every aspect of the restaurant has a purpose.

Maybe more impressive than the thought that goes into everything at Gather is the fact that the meals there are quite affordable (by Bay Area dining standards), and that they will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 days a week.

It’s really a model for what we hope food and restaurants will become if enough people care. That’s why we decided to become investors in the restaurant. I have no idea if the restaurant will be a success, but we feel great about being part of something like Gather.

Slow Money

Which brings me to the second part of that serendipity I mentioned earlier. Not only are we supporting something that aligns with our food values, but we’re also doing something that I recently discovered is known as “slow money.”

Slow money is about supporting small food enterprises on the local, grass-roots level through what founder Woody Tasch calls nurture capital.

Gather CEO and co-founder Ari Derfel spoke at a slow money conference last year, and was able to raise money to complete the restaurant largely through 60+ small independent angel investors. It’s an impressive feat considering the reputation restaurants have for being bad investments.

When It All Came Together

My wife and I had the incredible pleasure of attending a pre-opening party for Gather last Friday night. I say that it was an incredible pleasure because the party was like nothing I’ve ever attended before. The event was filled with so much unique emotion and aspiration that I find it hard to convey in words.

Ari and Eric, the founders of Gather, have been nurturing the vision for the restaurant for nearly a decade. They have worked together in the organic catering and outdoor adventure businesses they created since 2000. The two of them shared the journey that led to the creation of the restaurant during a touching 2-hour presentation before the pre-opening party.

It was clear from all the emotion and dedication we witnessed that the project is much more than a restaurant. It’s really about community and our connection with the earth. It all hit home when Ari shared one of his favorite stories that had kept him focused on succeeding even when it appeared all hope was lost:

A Cherokee woman was teaching her grandchildren about life. She said, “A battle is raging inside me. It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The old woman looked at the children with a firm stare. “This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”

The children thought about it for a minute, and then one child asked his grandmother, “which wolf will win?”

The grandmother replied: “The one you feed.”

Which wolf will you feed?

Oh, and the food at Gather? It’s incredible. Fresh, local, in-season and organic all add up to one incredible meal. If you’re in Berkeley anytime soon, you won’t want to miss Gather.

photo by Scorpions and Centaurs

I'm Corbett Barr, co-founder of Fizzle and entrepreneur for a decade. Get my weekly curated email of useful things for independent entrepreneurs »

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