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'We want to be a beacon for other businesses'
Daryl Ross feeds a lot of folks around here — at Caffé Strada, the Moffitt Library, Boalt Hall, and the Berkeley Art Museum. With the opening of his new restaurant, Adagia, he's now taking budget organic mainstream

| 25 August 2005

Daryl Ross may have completed his B.A. in philosophy at Berkeley in 1985, after the standard four years, but in all the ways that count, he's never left.


Though slow during summer's lull, business at Adagia (above) is picking up as students return to campus. Owner Daryl Ross (top), as familiar as anyone with the tempo of the restaurant business in these parts, continues to develop Adagia as an affordable alternative to the likes of Chez Panisse - while holding firm to his vision of delicious sustainability. (Daryl Ross by Bart Nagel, Adagia by Deborah Stalford)
Ross operates five eateries on or near the Berkeley campus: the Free Speech Movement Café in Moffitt Library, Boalt Hall's Café Zeb, the Berkeley Art Museum's Café Muse, Caffé Strada (the bustling coffee-and-pastry emporium just east of BAM on Bancroft Way at College Avenue), and Adagia, his first full-service restaurant, which opened next to Strada on Bancroft in February. All are popular with students, faculty, and staff for their combination of low-key ambience and carefully prepared, mostly organic food at budget prices.

"I have always thought food places should have more significance than just delivering food. They're places where community develops," says Ross. At Strada, his first (and, he admits, still his favorite) business, "Nobel laureates hold informal office hours next to teenagers with skateboards. That to me is the essence of Berkeley."

Both Berkeley and good food have been present in Ross' life since he was a child. Both his older siblings attended Cal. His mother was an excellent cook, and his father, in addition to buying and selling clothes wholesale, operated several fast-food-type stands throughout the '70s in the Bay Area.

Among them was an Orange Julius, an early juice-and-smoothie franchise. Although the Orange Julius chain had very strict, cost-conscious recipes that franchisees were supposed to follow, Ross' father was always subversively substituting high-end hot dogs and fresh orange juice. "It would get him in trouble [with the franchise overseers]," Ross shrugs. "But quality was more important to him than the bottom line."

It's a philosophy he shares. Last year he opened Café Muse as a lunchtime destination for campus denizens and museum patrons alike. The opening-day menu emphasized "raw food" dishes (see "What's not cooking in Berkeley?" at newscenter.berkeley.edu/goto/cafemuse), and though subsequent tweaks have introduced a higher proportion of cooked items, no serious damage has been done to Ross' culinary/political philosophy: Nothing on the menu costs more than $8, even though most of the ingredients are organic, free-range, and/or sustainably grown — i.e., synonymous with pricey.

How does Ross do it? Occasionally by losing money, he says ruefully. "Muse has not broken even consistently," he says. "Quality is very important to me, and I keep ratcheting that up. Oftentimes the bottom line isn't there. It's not a great way of running a business."

In his place, others might raise prices, or perhaps switch over to cheaper produce grown with pesticides. Neither move is acceptable to Ross. "My business is about making this kind of food accessible to everyone," he says. And by everyone, he includes students. He wants his new restaurant, Adagia, to be more than "just for special occasions, like Chez Panisse is."

Although Adagia often buys from the same suppliers as that Berkeley gastronomic temple, all of its dinner entrées — including duck confit and grass-fed Montana beef — cost less than $20. Most of the wine list, which emphasizes French and Italian bottlings, is priced at under $30. To keep Adagia's prices low, Ross has cut corners where he can. There are no tablecloths on the handsome wood tables (all made from reclaimed lumber), obviating laundering costs — and reducing the quantity of harmful chemicals, like bleach, that Adagia contributes to the environment.

Ross is quick to note that he considers Chez Panisse an inspiration, not competition. He met its founder, Alice Waters, in 2002, when he was creating the FSM Café on campus. She opened Ross' eyes to the importance of using produce from local farmers who practice organic, sustainable methods.

"Alice gave me a whole new definition of quality," says Ross of the experience. "Until then, I hadn't thought enough about how food fits into the ecosystem. Quality, organic, sustainable ingredients not only taste better, they're better for the world all around."

In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, restaurant critic Michael Bauer praised the inventive and nutritious entrées at Adagia without ever mentioning that most were organic. That's because it's possible to eat a delicious meal at Adagia and never know that you're part of a culinary environmental movement. After writing a multi-paragraph description of Adagia's food philosophy for the restaurant's opening, Ross jettisoned it in favor of a terse sentence in small type on the side of the menu: "Join our table: Adagia uses organic and sustainable ingredients whenever possible."

Why not advertise that the beef is from Montana's Meyer Ranch and the pork from Marin County's Niman Ranch, as other Berkeley restaurants do? Ross winces. "When you gratuitously throw brand names on the menu, you're shaping the experience into something else," he says. "Yes, I want to open people's eyes to what's behind food: the implications of what you buy, of food that has to be trucked across America using oil, of pesticides and their health effects. But here's the conundrum: as much as I want to inform, I don't want to preach."

He is also aware that students, in particular, tend to be less concerned with how their sandwich meat was raised than with how much it costs. At the FSM Café he experimented with using milk from Straus Family Creamery, an organic dairy in Marin County. The significantly higher-priced milk did not inspire more student consumption. "With students, you're fighting against distraction. Students are here to study, and food is just a necessary thing to most of them," he shrugs. After a few months, Ross resignedly switched back to regular milk at the FSM Café.

Even Adagia, the highest-priced of all his eateries — not designed for students, but also designed not to exclude them — uses some non-organic foods. Certain ingredients are so expensive out of season that Ross has to switch back to their more widely available, non-organic counterparts. "I'd love for Adagia to go 100-percent organic," he says. "But I don't think it's possible for us to do so all the time and keep our prices affordable."

Eat yours green

Yet Ross will attempt to do just that with a new venture that he is developing in partnership with Berkeley's student government body, the ASUC. The Green Café will use only sustainably grown, recycled, or reclaimed materials. Even the cleaning solutions will be environmentally friendly. "I want it to epitomize how businesses should be in the 21st century," says Ross. "Businesses in general and restaurants in particular are extremely wasteful."

He has tapped professors and students from the architecture department for designs and lists of "green" building materials, lobbied the business school to develop sustainable business models, and actively solicited ideas from student conservation groups. If all goes smoothly — though it almost never does at Berkeley — the Green Café could be open by fall 2006 in the southeast corner of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, where Telegraph Avenue dead-ends into Bancroft Way. Right now it's a mostly empty space with information kiosks and a stairway up to the Pauley Ballroom.

Ross is thrilled with the location's visibility. "Berkeley can't have some generic chain shop at its gateway, a Starbucks or a Quiznos. That's not what Berkeley is about," he says, his usually mild manner turning passionate. "Berkeley is about the progressive nature of what's possible. The Green Café plugs into what Cal gave me: a perspective on how to change the paradigm, to see how far you can take these models. We want to be a beacon for other businesses."