Manfred Kroening is the tall, silver-haired Austrian who regularly greets customers at the front door of Bette’s Oceanview Diner. He and his late wife Bette (along with Sue Conley who went on to co-found Cowgirl Creamery) opened the diner on Berkeley’s Fourth Street in 1982. Fourth Street in the early 1980s was an unlikely neighborhood to start a homey, welcoming place for brunch. The nearby warehouse tenants were glassblowers and metalworkers in what was then an industrial neighborhood.
Speaking by telephone Kroening recalled that, “Back then, to work on Fourth Street, it was a bad zone at that time. Roaming dogs and upside-down shopping carts.” He felt that they were really taking a chance starting a business there. But they all thought, “Let’s try to work together and make a living.”
With its old-fashioned checkerboard floor, perfect French omelets and signature jukebox, Bette’s slowly but surely anchored diners’ affections to Fourth Street. When the city mandated shelter-in-place orders in March due to Covid-19, both Bette’s and its To Go storefront next door closed for three months. That felt like an eternity to customers, like me, who crave their daily sandwich specials, pizza slices and various homemade desserts. In a separate interview, Manfred and Bette’s daughter Lucie, who’s currently helping her father with the business, says the initial closure was only supposed to last two weeks.
At the time, the diner wasn’t set up for takeout and didn’t have systems in place for online ordering or for packaging brunch items for takeaway. Fourth Street is normally a bustling shopping district. But without the retail shoppers and people who work in the neighborhood that comprise the regular customers, it didn’t make sense to reopen. And, as Lucie explains, “My parents really opened a restaurant to create community, to have contact with people.”
When Bette’s reopened on July 2, they had a plan in place for outdoor dining and had received a federal PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan to help with payroll. Since then, Kroening says that the shoppers and the employees nearby haven’t returned to 4th Street in anywhere near the same numbers as before. Additionally, he’s having to improvise every day, making decisions about what food to order and what hours and days to open and close.
“It’s like starting all over again,” Kroening says. “It’s not what Bette and I thought when we opened up the restaurant, to deal with these kinds of problems.” But he is waiting to see if things change. “Every day is different. You make too much. You make too little.” He says that the staff can get depressed waiting for customers to show up. They wonder if anybody’s going to come.
He says, “It’s dead sometimes.”
It surprises me to learn from Lucie that the diner is doing better business than Bette’s To Go. For the last couple of months, one of my few pandemic outings each week has been to pick up lunch there. Bette’s To Go is my version of Cheers. I’ve returned for more than a decade because I rely on the familiar faces to make me feel, momentarily, at home in a friend’s kitchen. I order comfort food. A turkey sandwich on whole wheat, a side of couscous or potato salad, a lemon square and an iced tea. As I carry the paper bag away to a bench in the shade, I’m cheered up by the ritual and the routine. I’ve taken every friend I’ve ever had there, too, to share the food with them as if we were performing a pagan version of a holy communion.
Lucie says that in July Bette’s hired back approximately half of the staff, 17 people out of 42. But with outdoor dining closing and then reopening again, it was a complicated, confusing month. “We’re between 30 and 40 percent of our gross,” she says. And, despite the smoke from the fires, they did well last weekend.
For a restaurant that’s been operating for 38 years, the newfound sense of instability is a huge adjustment. “We were a very, very well-oiled machine prior to this,” Lucie says. “All of a sudden we don’t know how much food we’re going to sell, so we have to look at food costs again. You have to look at all these things that you didn’t have to think about.”
Kroening believes that, unlike Chinese and Mexican restaurants, Bette’s To Go doesn’t work as an online business. People aren’t making the trip out for “a hot dog, a slice of pizza or a special sandwich.” What draws me back is an ineffable feeling that I can’t define until Kroening easily pins it down.
“Bette used to say, ‘It’s not only the meatloaf,’” Kroening says. “It’s really teamwork and cooperation. People who like it there and contribute to the atmosphere.” Under these difficult circumstances, he says, it’s really hard to hold onto that feeling. “And that’s why I’m still working there everyday.” Despite the loss of revenue, Kroening says he doesn’t have any intention of closing or selling.
“Bette and I liked cooking and we just wanted to be together, and be working together. It was a simple thing,” he says. Bette grew up in New Jersey where eating at diners was part of the culture. “Everybody eats at diners. Children. Old people. Couples. Single people. We wanted to have a place that welcomes everybody.”
Understandably, Kroening is acutely aware of his wife’s absence this year. “Bette was a really, really big part of this whole restaurant,” he says. “I don’t have her. I don’t have a partner who I can lean on. So it’s a lot of responsibility. Sometimes I don’t sleep at night.”
When they reopened, he was surprised by how many people told him how happy they were and how much the place means to them. “They really missed coming and it was such a big part of Berkeley for 20, 25, 30 years,” he says. “They came with their children and now they have grandchildren. I really appreciate that and it makes me feel so special.”
Expressing concern for her 66-year-old father, Lucie says, “It’s pretty exhausting for him.” Both father and daughter are quick to acknowledge the help of “a great managing staff.” But the exhaustion he’s contending with comes from the daily ups and downs and the unknowable future. “So it’s one day at a time and one crisis at a time,” Lucie says.
Bette’s Oceanview Diner, 1807 Fourth St., Berkeley. Thu–Mon 9am to 2pm. 510.644.3230
Bette’s To Go, 1807 Fourth St., Berkeley. Mon–Fri 8am to 2pm. 510.548.9494