Four years ago, the villagers in Montclair resisted the charms of Chowhaus. Tracey Belock and her husband Joe Schnell opened and then closed a sunny, contemporary version of an all-day American diner. They painted the barn-like interior a cheerful shade of white. Great big windows opened out to the sidewalk and let the sunshine in. The restaurant was ideal for sipping iced tea with a pal on a lazy day. But something about it didn’t click.
Daughter Thai Kitchen, which moved into the Chowhaus space, subsequently became a bustling neighborhood favorite. It was the right cuisine at the right time. Around the corner on Moraga Avenue, business partners Beth Barrett and Virginia Davis are attempting to fill a niche that runs parallel to the one that didn’t work at Chowhaus. The concept of their Yellow Door cafe, however, isn’t a high-end, sit-down place to brunch and lunch.
During last month’s soft opening, they started with a modest to-go model and set up a couple of small tables and chairs out front. The white-tiled walls inside are as welcoming as the filled vitrine. A bright-berried coffee cake caught my attention, as did a slice of frittata. Montclair Village, Barrett and Davis knew, already had a donut shop and a bagel shop, so they weren’t going to compete with them. They also decided not to make yeast or croissant doughs because a couple of vendors sell them at the weekly farmer’s market nearby.
Yellow Door’s origin story begins with Barrett and Davis’ love of a “good baked good.” Between them, they’ve accumulated a large stockpile of recipes. But they mostly bake what they like to eat. Davis’ chocolate chip cookie has walnuts, whereas Barrett’s doesn’t. They also alter recipes to get exactly what they’re after. For example, when they talked about the kind of blueberry muffin they were going to make, they knew that they wanted, “a lot more berries than you’d ever find in somebody else’s bakery.”
Davis also knows how to achieve the perfect scone: “It is not dry. It’s slightly sweet and it’s not 48-hours old,” she says … rather dryly. Her inspiration for that particular scone came from one she tried at the now-defunct Remedy Coffee cafe that was on Telegraph Avenue. Davis says they made a really good cappuccino. It’s that straightforward appreciation of a cafe’s casual offerings that Yellow Door’s trying to emulate. Besides the Acme bread they use for sandwiches and the Saint Frank coffee, the co-owners make everything else in-house.
Barrett and Davis had planned on opening last December. But things happened. Biblical-sized things. Davis explains that, “There’s been, of course, the pandemic. Then you throw in that heatwave, then you had that weird storm for a couple of days, and then the fires.” Since everything has been in flux, it’s been difficult for them as business owners to get an accurate reading on the demand. Davis wonders, “Are people not around because they can’t breathe outside? Or because it’s Sunday?”
Barrett recalls arriving one morning after the lightning strikes. “We couldn’t get in our front door. Two enormous branches had fallen, and thankfully missed our windows.” Small business owners normally face challenges like these over the course of decades. Yellow Door has been facing down one after another in the course of a month.
Having acknowledged that, Davis feels that they’ve actually been lucky. Before opening, they watched how other businesses reacted to the pandemic. “The first thing we did was to get tables for outside,” she says. And then they placed safety markers on the floor inside to indicate how far apart the customers should be when they stand in line.
The first week they sold out of everything before noon. Barrett says that they were nervous because they didn’t want to disappoint people. The recurring question that continues to be elusive is, “How do you know how many people are going to show up during a pandemic?”
Since opening, they have figured out that some days are busier than others. They’ll sell 50 breakfast sandwiches one day (they have a sweet and a savory version); other days only half that. Barrett is optimistic though and says, “We’re making it longer through the day and not running out of food. I think we’re getting better.”
Yellow Door, open 8am to 2pm Wednesday-Sunday, 6466 Moraga Ave., Oakland. yellowdoormontclair.com.