By Stephanie Reilly, Ascension Insurance Services[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n December 2009 Eric Fenster and Ari Derfel launched Gather Restaurant with a mission: to support the work of sustainable farmers and local ranchers, bring the community together around the table for vibrant dining experiences, and create a supportive and familial work environment for their team. Well received in the local community, Gather has since garnered national and international acclaim.
The story leading to the restaurant was an adventure, and Eric and Ari had to draw on their background as mountain guides, chefs, event producers, and team builders to make this 125-seat establishment. In 2007, the developers of the David Brower Center, a four-story, LEED Platinum building in downtown Berkeley housing environmental and social justice organizations, began soliciting proposals for a 4,000-square-foot restaurant on the ground floor, and Eric and Ari were ultimately awarded the contract.
In order to finance the restaurant, they invited the community to become direct stakeholders. They crowd-sourced funding from a large network of local investors and worked with Community Bank of the Bay and the Oakland Business Development Center. This creative financing was necessary in light of the challenges they faced raising investment during the Great Recession of 2008.
Located in the David Brower Center, the “greenest” building in the East Bay, Gather is powered by a team of passionate, hardworking people. The kitchen is led by executive chef Charis Wahl, and directing the front of house is general manager Jodi Munson. Eric and Ari run the business and operations. The restaurant is warm and inviting, and many of the materials used for the interior are recycled: wood siding from wooden water tanks and decorative lighting enhanced by recycled fishnets.
Gather believes that the way food is produced before it gets to the restaurant is every bit as important as how it is prepared in the kitchen. Their suppliers are selected based on principles of quality, commitment, ecology, and selection.
Their requirement for quality is really quite simple: is the product everything it should be? That means grown or raised naturally, harvested at the right time and in the right way, and packed and delivered with care. Their goal is to use in their kitchen what farmers could have in their own farmhouse kitchens, and the menu changes regularly to reflect the ingredients available.
“For me, I just absolutely love the fact that our restaurant in Berkeley is supporting the hard work of people who have stewardship of the land for us,” says owner Eric. “Our food purveyors are working their butts off growing and creating the most delicious, beyond-organic ingredients on planet earth, and I am deeply grateful for their efforts.”
What is his favorite dish? “People ask me this all the time, and it really is impossible for me to answer. Because I am there a lot, I tend to love whatever is newest in each season. At the same time, being from New York I can’t resist our thin-crust pizzas. My kids love to devour the simple cheese pizza so I usually steal a slice or three.”
Inspired by the same social and ecological ethos behind Gather, Eric and Ari have created other businesses that positively affect the planet. In 2001, they launched an outdoor adventure program, Back to Earth, designed to inspire personal growth and help people reconnect to the natural world. (The company continues to run powerful wilderness journeys each year for adults and youth, including popular “yoga backpacking” trips led by nationally renowned instructors.) In 2003, they launched the first organic catering company in the United States, and they have been recognized for their pioneering efforts in bringing a sustainable approach to the typically wasteful event industry.
Eric is also currently running a retreat center in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino, located at the historic Toll House of Boonville (www.tollhouseinn.com). “It’s a magical property with beautiful accommodations, inspiring gathering spaces, and miles of trails to explore through the oak hills and grassy meadows. We are planning orchards and gardens, so the fresh food can flow right into the spacious country kitchen.”
As for what’s planned at Gather for 2017, Eric says, “We are always looking for ways to maintain excitement for our diners. We are currently creating plans for a monthly event series to highlight the work of one of our inspiring farmers at each one. Additionally, we are talking about creating a weekly ‘surprise’ night where we have something special happening that you won’t know unless you visit us—a live band, a taste of a new dish, a dessert on the house, a cocktail tasting, who knows…”
Stephanie Reilly has 32 years of extensive insurance and risk management experience leading and working as part of multidiscipline client service teams in a wide range of industries, including commercial real estate, manufacturing and distribution, and hospitality. Her technical areas of competence include workers compensation, property, liability, professional liability, and executive risk coverages, as well as alternative risk financing mechanisms and techniques.
This article will also appear in The VIEW, the quarterly publication jointly curated by the three Bay Area chapters of Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW)—CREW San Francisco, CREW East Bay, and CREW Silicon Valley. CREW is a nationwide business networking organization dedicated to the advancement of women in commercial real estate. For chapter news, events, and membership information, visit the Bay Area member organization websites at crewsf.org, creweastbay.org, and crewsv.org.