To interest carnivores in the Petit Cafe’s vegetarian menu, Dan Edelman has a plan. The chef and manager says that hospital workers on Pill Hill have responded to the farro and quinoa bowls, salads and toasts. But another demographic during business hours is a tougher crowd to please. “There’s a lot of construction going on and it’s been difficult to get those workers to come in,” he says. After a decade of cooking vegetarian cuisine at San Francisco restaurants Greens and Millennium, Edelman has figured out how to make his food enticing to hard-core carnivores.
Someone adventurous might try a bowl of grains, but “they’re not going to go for a salad,” he says. “I’m trying to put more sandwiches on the menu that will appeal to a wider audience.” For example, the grilled cheese will evolve every couple of weeks by making it with a house-made mustard, caramelized onions, apples, cheddar and gruyere. The next incarnation would be inspired by Mexican flavors with black beans, pickled onions and a tomatillo salsa.
Edelman explains that he’s a huge fan of the farmers market. “I go to the one in Berkeley on Tuesdays so I get to see what’s fresh,” he says. “I have built up relationships with a bunch of the farmers over the years.” After 10 years of shopping and cooking in the Bay Area, he’s gotten to know what produce to expect from them with the arrival of each season.
Sheila Hollander, the owner, hired Edelman in September, but she’d initially opened Petit Cafe back in February. After only being open a month, the cafe closed in March due to the Alameda County lockdown. Hollander didn’t reopen until the beginning of October. During that long summer, she knew that she wanted to hire a manager who’d been trained in the culinary arts. Hollander posted an ad on craigslist and Edelman, who was looking for a new opportunity, replied.
She closed the cafe for six months because “there were a lot of unknowns as to when the pandemic would be over, when it would be under control.” Hollander wanted to find the right people to reopen, when she felt safe enough to do so. “I feel very fortunate that I have someone here who is talented, creating the menu and all the recipes,” Hollander says. She had a great relationship with the caterer who came up with the original menu, but Edelman brought his considerable baking experience to the cafe. Petit Cafe’s sandwich bread comes from nearby Firebrand Artisan Breads. And while they still sell some of Firebrand’s pastries, 90 percent of the baked goods, like the huckleberry muffin I tried, are made in house.
To elevate the items on the original menu at Petit Cafe, Hollander and Edelman decided to adopt a seasonal approach to ingredients. They’re intent on buying products that are local and organic, “as much as possible.”
Hollander has worked in the Pill Hill neighborhood since 2014, and she lives nearby. She found that, three out of five days a week, she’d eat at Chipotle for lunch. Hollander tired of the area’s limited food options, and that was enough motivation for her to start a cafe of her own—one with more variety. “There is no establishment in the neighborhood that has in-house-made pastries. Or coffee, for that matter,” she says. “Our head barista has created all the drinks.” Petit Cafe prides itself on the fact that they don’t purchase any pre-made syrup.
Hollander is referring to coffee drinks like a lavender latte and “The Sandman,” which is a latte made with “superfood chaga.” “None of our specialty coffees here have high-fructose corn [syrup],” she says. The coffee Petit Cafe sells comes from the Oakland roaster Red Bay Coffee. When I stopped by the cafe, I was intent on lunch and didn’t get coffee. I tried the soft-boiled egg salad sandwich, a fresh take on a dish that’s usually awash in mayonnaise.
With the help of Maria Fangras, Petit Cafe also plans to expand service into the evenings and possibly weekends. At the moment, Fangras is working to secure a liquor license and is planning a small-bites-and-wine-pairing menu.
Petit Cafe, open Monday to Friday 7:30am to 2pm, 411 30th St., Oakland. 510.208.9418. petitcafeoak.com.