Oakland’s Remedy: Cure for the Common Cafe
Oakland’s Remedy Coffee has the look of a hipper-than-thou, third-wave coffeehouse, and one would think that indie hangover music would be threading through the speakers to match the watery light on a Saturday morning. But no, this is Todd Spitzer’s place, so Spice Girls comes bumping out the speaker bright and early.
There’s a method to the café owner’s musical madness. “It makes the baristas dance, and when they dance, they’re more jovial to the customers,” Spitzer said in an interview on a warm afternoon, sipping an iced coffee. “But then we’re sick of that, so we’ll play some hip-hop. And about an hour later we’re sick of that, so we’ll play all the indie art bands in the afternoon, when we’re all emo, crashing from the caffeine.”
Spitzer likes all types of music, but keeps his eye on quality. “It’s like a lot of things. There’s good music that’s executed well, and music that isn’t. If it’s done well, I really like it. It doesn’t really matter the genre.”
His insistence on quality lies not only behind his musical choices, but also beneath Remedy’s every mismatched chair, mid-century modern table, and latte rosetta. The café serves Ritual Coffee, the local roaster known not only for paying premium for the top two percent of the crop a coffee farmer has to offer, but for six a.m. emergency deliveries as well. Something else that draws coffee addicts to Remedy: its baristas. Remedy’s lead barista, Paul Halvorsen, is nationally ranked in the top 50, and is going to the upcoming national barista competition.
“I’m the weak link,” Spitzer says about his own barista skills. “The employees will tell you. They’ll kick me off bar, and make me go home.”
The café is carefully designed to create a fun vibe, despite, or perhaps because of its sleek looks. If its retro Pacific Bell telephone booth, reclaimed high school wooden chairs, and cute baristas seem too hipster-chic, open your laptop, and choose Remedy’s Wi-Fi network: “remedy hearts you!” Warm fuzzies may ensue.
Spitzer explained, “I wanted to design the space and have it reflect my personality, and the coffee to be what I would serve my friends at my house. The people who work here are people I would hang out with anyway. Basically if you came over to my house, you’d have the same experience, only I wouldn’t charge you as much.”
Another secret to the café’s success is Spitzer’s ability to make friends. Most of the tables, lighting, even the tube amplifiers for the record player were built with the help of friends. The owners of Ritual Coffee are friends, and friends helped with the many microloans it took to open the café.
Spitzer is a laid-back presence at the café. In his trademark newsboy cap and scruffy smile, he has a high-five at the ready for a mix of Temescal clientele — firemen, work-at-cafe techies, artists, and stroller-pushing parents. Behind his mild-mannered demeanor is a businessman who looks at his café, at community building, as an art project.
“I wasn’t trying to create a coffee shop. I wanted to build a community. I love the people in Temescal. I wanted a space where anyone from the neighborhood could come in. And then community develops; people get to know each other. So-and-so asks out somebody else and they get married. That kind of stuff happens.”
What inspired him to create community? “A jacked-up childhood,” he half-joked. And with his typical mixture of friendliness and coyness, he won’t expand on the subject.
But he will tell you he wasn’t always the nice, two drink-max café owner. “If you knew me in my twenties, you would have hated me then,” he said with a slight smile. “I’m old and tired now. I’m just like, ‘aww, give me a hug.’”
Tired as he is, Spitzer’s currently engaged in a few additional art projects. An Airstream trailer carries a mini-Remedy to farmers’ markets in Marin County and San Francisco, with plans to sell espresso at Oakland’s Grand Lake farmers’ market in the works. Berkeley Art Museum currently hosts the trailer during the week in their courtyard, although soon, Remedy will have permanent digs inside the museum. The original Oakland café, though, Spitzer regards as his personal living room.
“I love it now. I know most of the people who are coming in.” He waves to a passerby. “That was our first customer.”
Photos: courtesy todd spitzer