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There are two ways to learn how to run a restaurant. The first is to go to culinary school. The second is to work in a professional kitchen and cook your way up to running your own. Latorra Monk went the second route.
Monk is the owner of Oaklandia Cafe in Oakland’s Pill Hill neighborhood, where she’s been open since last June. Here, she serves espresso drinks and breakfast and lunch fare, including craft sandwiches made with housemade bread. In fact, all the cafe’s baked goods are made in-house.
Before Oaklandia, Monk had applied to the now-closed California Culinary Academy (CCA) even though she knew it was well outside her budget. She couldn’t get a co-signer on an education loan, and while on a tour of the school, she discussed her situation with her guide. He suggested that Monk consider a different route — getting an education in cooking and restaurant management through work experience, rather than paying for a program.
“I was disappointed,” said Monk, “but it also opened my eyes up to so much more and made me realize that I had a school of my own in my own backyard already.”
Beginning in 2006, Monk worked at Specialty’s Cafe & Bakery on Sansome Street in San Francisco, working her way up to kitchen manager. Quite a number of CCA graduates worked at Specialty’s with her. “It was kind of a natural procession of things, baking and pastry students would end up there,” said Monk, “and I kind of got to see what they had learned.”
In 2011, Monk moved to Revolution Foods, a catering company delivering healthy school and community lunches, where she worked as the production manager. Then in 2014, she worked for Blue Apron, the home meal kit delivery service, where she was a kitchen supervisor. “And I loved that environment,” said Monk, “seeing ingredients shipped from the farm fresh, learning about herbs and spices and vegetables and things I had never gotten my hands on before. Plus managing a staff of 50-plus people.”
Looking back on that decade, Monk sees those three positions as separate courses of an intensive curriculum. “It took me on a deep dive,” she said. “I would say that Specialty’s gave me the idea behind mise en place, and then Revolution Foods helped me understand volume. And Blue Apron really helped me see from farm-to-table.”
And then she left the business. The work had begun to feel like a dead-end. Monk felt that she, as a woman of color, had gotten as far as she was ever going to be allowed to go.
“It has to do with racial disparity,” she said. “A lot of people of color were not given the opportunity to be more than they were. They were kept in positions of lower management. Like that’s all that they were capable of. A lot of people felt helpless [being somewhere] where all they could do was pack lunches and there was no opportunity for growth.”
“It felt like a very heavy environment,” said Monk.” I felt like it was time to do a little soul searching and figure out what my next move was.”
That next move was as a preschool teacher, first for Oakland Garden School and then for Duck’s Nest. Although she left the food industry, Monk never really left food, bringing farm-to-table to the classroom. She led a cooking program for the children, making pasta from scratch and spice blends for the holidays.
After the weight of managing dozens of staff and thousands of meals, Monk describes her years as a teacher as a time of relief.
“It took me back to a simpler time,” she said. “I remember being a kid and being free and picking sourgrass and picking collard greens from my grandmother’s garden.”
Monk grew up in West Oakland. Her grandmother had moved to Oakland from Louisiana, and had a garden that Monk describes as having been both beautiful and bountiful. As a child, Monk tore up handfuls of collard greens and mixed them into mud pies. This was probably her first recipe, she realizes, and it did not go over well.
“She chased me,” said Monk, describing her grandmother’s reaction. “I remember running and hiding behind my mom.”
Later, when her grandmother calmed down, she taught her granddaughter about the garden, about the importance of soil, of vegetables and treating food right.
“If you look at my menu, you’ll see that I put veggies in everything,” Monk said describing what’s on offer at Oaklandia Cafe. “And that’s because of Grandma.”
Monk knew that she wanted to open her own kitchen eventually. When the property on 30th Street came up for lease in November 2019, she and her husband decided to spring for it. Nevermind that Monk was two weeks away from giving birth to her second son. “I had to make the cafe mine,” she said.
The timing was early, but also perfect. “We were actually searching for a bakery,” said Monk. Her husband has over 25 years experience in French and Italian baking traditions, and presently works at a French bakery (though would prefer that both he and the bakery go unnamed for this article).
“But we didn’t find one when we were searching, and the cafe is near where we live,” said Monk. “It’s what we could find that was kind of the middle ground for us.”
Monk left her preschool job, developed the menu, manages the business, the space and delivery platforms, while her husband acts as a silent partner and prepares all the cafe’s pastries. Since the venue was already built as a cafe, they didn’t have to do much to turn the space around and open for business.
Then, of course, the same thing happened to Oaklandia that happened to restaurants everywhere else. Monk had barely opened the doors in June before she was forced to close them.
With Oaklandia, Monk had hoped to make a community hangout, sort of an informal living room where neighborhood residents could relax inside or on the outdoor patio. Maybe it would host some occasional bands or DJs.
However, with the ongoing coronavirus-related restrictions, that hasn’t happened, and Monk has had to pivot to a fast-casual model. “That was never what I imagined our cafe being,” said Monk. “Because we’re not fast food, and delivery platforms expect you to be.”
Still, Monk realized many of her customers are nearby office and hospital workers. She created Oakandia’s “lunch box menu” with them in mind. Lunch boxes contain a sandwich with a choice cookie and chips. Oaklandia also offers sandwiches a la carte. There’s a chicken torta with chipotle marinated chicken breast and creamy cilantro dressing; a roasted cauliflower steak sandwich with kale, red onion, tomatoes and pesto on focaccia, and a bbq sandwich featuring hickory-smoked chicken with mango habanero sauce and coleslaw. Of the BBQ chicken sandwich, Monk said, it “makes me think of Deep East Oakland.”
Oaklandia still could be that neighborhood hangout that Monk dreams of — if the cafe can outlast coronavirus.
Monk has been trying to apply for any loans available but “there’s just a lot of red tape that they don’t tell you about,” she said. And no matter how well-intentioned the program, someone is always excluded. In the last round of relief, qualifying businesses had to have opened during or before June 2019, five months prior to Oaklandia’s opening. “I’m about to throw my hands up and surrender to COVID,” said Monk.
But not without a fight. Monk has started a GoFundMe page for her business, with a goal of $5,000, in part to offset the burden of balancing a five-year lease against a drastic reduction in business. It’s not ideal — Monk would rather be paying the rent through sales — but it is a way to hang on while she rethinks the direction she wants to take the business.
The past year has been all about pivoting for Monk: switching to a more fast-casual model, fundraising to feed postal workers this past September and rethinking her online marketing. She already knew from her time at Specialty’s, Revolution Foods and Blue Apron how important it is to occasionally redirect a business, but it’s different when forced to apply those lessons to one’s own enterprise.
“Having your own business enables you to grow in ways you would not have been able to in other places,” she said. Still, “it’s a different pivot, a different way of looking at yourself, and it’s a hard change to put yourself out there.”
Oaklandia Cafe is open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday; closed Saturday and Sunday.