Sean Brekke and Clifford Nivens preparing food at Oak Harvest Kitchen. Credit: Pete Rosos

It is a quiet day at Oak Harvest Kitchen at City Center in Oakland. Sean Brekke is peeling and chopping tomatoes for the nonprofit restaurant’s weekly family meals. On the menu this week: gazpacho, Early Girl tomato and stone fruit salad, eggplant and Jimmy Nardello peppers au gratin. 

A lot has changed since February, when Oak Harvest Kitchen (formerly known as CORE Kitchen) rebranded. Located in a busy part of downtown near City Hall and numerous offices, Brekke was used to the constant influx of lunchtime foot traffic. But on March 15, Oak Harvest Kitchen’s entire operation came to a halt because of the pandemic and he had to let go of the kitchen’s four full-time employees, which included three line cooks and a cashier. Zella’s Soulful Kitchen, which shared kitchen space, was also forced to shut down. 

Although it took a few months, Brekke and his team have found a new way to safely reopen the business, pay as many people as possible, and try and make up some of the revenue they lost in the meantime.

In August, they launched the Oak Harvest Family Meal, three-course spreads for two or four people, costing between $40-$75, that can be picked up at the City Center location or delivered. Every week, Brekke comes up with a fresh and sustainable menu using local farmers’ produce. The weekly menu is typically announced on Monday and customers can place orders between then and Wednesday. The order is then ready to go on Thursday afternoon. On a good week, Oak Harvest averages about a dozen orders. Although business isn’t quite at levels it could be, Brekke said it was important to bring some of the Oak Harvest Kitchen employees back to work.

“We wanted to figure out ways to reopen, while at the same time helping our employees who are already facing an uphill battle with finding employment,” Brekke said. Many Oak Harvest Kitchen employees face discrimination and other hardships due to prior criminal convictions, making a job search during the pandemic and recession even more daunting. In the kitchen, Brekke runs a team made up of workers that the nonprofit refers to as “justice-involved individuals” who are re-entering the community after prison and need job training and placement.

Brekke, born and raised in East Oakland, already had a background in the food industry before joining Oak Harvest Kitchen a year and a half ago. His most recent job was as a sous chef for Duende, the Uptown restaurant that temporarily closed recently because of the pandemic. Working in the food industry, Brekke said he had noticed many inequities, some of which were exacerbated by the pandemic. He wanted to do something that could make a difference. 

Oak Harvest Kitchen’s fully operational restaurant has been closed since March 15. Credit: Pete Rosos

“I was ready to use the skills I had learned [at Duende] and give back to the community,” Brekke said of joining Oak Harvest Kitchen, which in 2018 changed hands from CORE Foods to Mandela Partners, another nonprofit founded in West Oakland, which mission is to expand access to locally sourced foods to low-income communities.

Being part of a nonprofit involves wearing multiple hats. Along with running the kitchen and managing the restaurant, Brekke coordinates the training of those who join the Re-Generate Opportunity Program, a Mandela Partners initiative that provides job training in the hospitality sector to Alameda County residents looking to find work and learn new skills after completing a prison sentence. He, along with the nonprofit’s executive director, is also in charge of Oak Harvest’s social media accounts, and as of last month, the development of the weekly vegan family meal menus.

Currently, two employees are working at Oak Harvest alongside Brekke. One of them is 26-year-old Clifford Nivens, born and raised in Oakland, who has worked with Brekke for over a year. For Nivens, Oak Harvest Kitchen has been a great opportunity. “This is my first real job, and that’s why I like it so much,” Nivens said. “Sean has taught me a lot.”

Nivens is grateful that he is back in the kitchen doing something he has learned to love. Brekke was able to re-hire him and one more employee when Oak Harvest Kitchen began prepping meals for the unhoused communities. “When the pandemic hit, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “We didn’t know if we were going to have any jobs at all.” 

Before launching the family meals program, Oak Harvest Kitchen was partnering with social justice nonprofits like East Oakland Collective and People’s Breakfast Oakland, which help provide food to thousands of unsheltered Oakland residents. “We did over 2,000 meals for them,” Brekke said. 

The uncertainty of how much longer Oak Harvest Kitchen can sustain the business while its restaurant is closed weighs heavily on Brekke. “Being in City Center, we depend on foot traffic from city and county buildings. All that is gone since those jobs can work from home,” he said. “We are having to reimagine kitchen space and how to help the business. It has been a complete 180.”

The newly launched family meals also give Brekke and the team at Oak Harvest Kitchen the opportunity to teach one another and the community about healthy and nutritious foods. “So many of us growing up didn’t have access to fresh foods,” Brekke said. Employees also learn kitchen skills that they can use at a job or at home when they cook with their families, Brekke said.

Nivens has a newfound appreciation for the way in which food is prepared and served to customers. “You see food differently when you’re back there prepping and cooking. You see the value in food more,” he said. “Now, with the skills I’ve learned, I can go to my grandma’s house and say ‘do you need help with those yams?’”

Oak Harvest Kitchen is part of a broader food security effort by Mandela Partners. The nonprofit also offers CSA boxes, ranging in price from $25 for a box mostly of fruit to a monthly $145 subscription of fruits and veggies. There’s also the Healthy Grocery Initiative, a partnership with corner stores throughout East and West Oakland to make fresh local produce more available in neighborhoods with limited access to it. People who receive CalFresh/SNAP benefits can purchase fruits and vegetables at a discount through these programs. Brekke said he has seen a boom in the business’s food distribution aspect, and he’s grateful for all the support. 

Soon, Oak Harvest Kitchen will welcome its newest, now socially distanced cohort of no more than five trainees, referred by the Center for Employment Opportunities. “People need these opportunities,” Brekke said. “We need a more inclusive restaurant industry.” Once they complete the four-week kitchen program, trainees will begin an 8-week paid internship with one of the kitchen’s partners. 

In the past, Oak Harvest Kitchen has teamed up with Duende and Zella’s Soulful Kitchen in Oakland, The Sweet Art of Cake in Hayward and Thank Que Grill in San Leandro to place trainees. For the latest cohort, trainees will complete their internship at either grocery delivery service Good Eggs or Asian soup and noodle retailer Nona Lim. The goal is for the interns to land full-time jobs after the completion of the 12-week program. 

“We are continuing the training and the support to get people jobs who need it most, who are going to suffer the most during the pandemic,” Brekke said. “When you buy a [family] meal, you’re supporting that kind of work.”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.