Emeryville-based social enterprise Just Fare delivers
At the rarest and best of times, a restaurant kitchen becomes a magical kingdom. Chopping fruits and vegetables; intoxicated by the scent of garlic, cumin, ginger, coriander and other spices in a sauce, soup or side dish; plating a finely seared steak or succulent seafood selection or lifting fresh bread from an oven; a person might find meaning and purpose. A dreamer prone to imagining feeding the underserved such simple, fresh and fine fare might act upon a burgeoning passion for community service thus kindled. The newborn chef’s cuisine may or may not be Soul Food, but it is surely food intended to feed not just bellies, but souls, too.
Such was the revolutionary experience had by Gabriel Cole during his childhood and teenage years growing up in South Burlington, Vermont. Today, Cole stands atop a list of pearly and plain descriptives: chef, workers rights advocate, conservationist, farmer, lifelong student, food industry consultant and, most recently, co-founder and CEO of Just Fare, an innovative delivery-only restaurant based in Emeryville. Prior to developing Just Fare, Cole worked for Bon Appétit Management Company at Google, La Cocina, Slow Food Nation and as the global Food program director at Airbnb.
But years ago, Cole was a 15-year-old student struggling academically. “Like so many people,” he says in an interview, “I had a tough adolescence. I’m a kinesthetic learner, not a book-learner.”
Fortunately, Cole attended a culinary school during his junior year in high school, later completing one year of hotel and restaurant management school before dropping out to open what was by that time his third food business, a Jewish Kosher deli in Atlanta. Working in restaurants and establishing food businesses over several decades, he was well versed in what he calls “the restaurant brigade-like tyranny system” that included low wages and little respect for kitchen and front-of-house staff, lack of health care benefits and limited opportunities for promotion or wealth-building for employees.
As more restaurants in recent years are created by owners with a mindset aimed at increased equitably, workers rights, sustainable practices, relying on local food sources and support for BIPOC or women-owned farms and ranches, Cole says the food industry is experiencing internal and external renaissance. “There’s a movement to treat people with respect,” he says. “To treat the land with respect. To see food as a vehicle for social change, as a community asset, as medicine.”
A meal, by his definition, is not just food produced by a chef and consumed by a customer. It is a decision point and a response to compelling questions. For chefs and owners: Who are we feeding and what resources do we have to share the bounty with underserved people living in food deserts or without means to feed their families? For customers: Where do I put my precious dollars? Are fair wages paid to farmers, vintners and the restaurant’s vendors and workers? Are the practices of this establishment environmentally sound and based on solid business models, and do they follow a social footprint that is desirable, even inspired? Cole says the answers to these questions can “provoke great things to happen in the world, or be a bummer.”
Just Fare’s Mediterranean, mostly organic menu was developed by Cole and Chef Eric Anderson, who most recently ran daily kitchen operations and an in-house charcuterie program at Oakland’s Dopo. Between 2009 and 2016, the company operated as a food and farm consultancy. In 2017, the two chefs performed an organizational pivot to launch a catering company that fed thousands of people daily, employed 70 people and in 2019 achieved $5.5 million in revenue.
In response to the pandemic—and despite losing nearly 95% of revenue—Cole elevated Just Fare’s desire to place a social manifesto centerstage by founding Community Kitchen. As of June 4, 2021, the initiative has delivered more than 250,000 meals to the community and to East Bay residents experiencing food insecurity. During 2020, it worked directly with partner organizations and, funded in part by $1 million raised from public and private sources including Oakland Public Education Fund, Eat.Learn.Play, Alameda County Social Services and Fare Resources, Inc., a total of 108,947 meals were donated and distributed.
Cole says receiving funds via the Paycheck Protection Program means the company now employs 40 people—including eight new hires—and raised minimum wage to $22 per hour with full benefits. “We try to do right by our people and ultimately, most people need help with wealth creation,” he says. “We buy almost exclusively organic produce and about 25% comes from BIPOC and/or local farmers and ranchers.”
Asked to highlight two Community Kitchen partners with a shout-out, Cole says, “There are 23 organizations total, and two I want to highlight are Queer Arts and Healing Center. We donated over 10,000 meals. They’re grassroots, Oakland-based and they‘ve been great partners. How they show up in their community is what we aspire to.” A second mention is Negas in Nature, through which Black people discover safe ways to participate in outdoor activities to promote holistic health, self-care and environmental justice. “They’re great teachers for us in how they were started and the work they do now,” Cole says.
Internally, Just Fare establishes clear protocols that allow for flexibility and humanity in hiring and training. In recruiting workers, high character is more important than culinary expertise, according to Cole, who says, “We look for people we want to be around for 48 hours a week. It’s a good litmus test.” Employee on-boarding includes full exposure to the company’s mission and culture, extensive safety training and staff meetings at which there are Spanish translators and American Sign Language interpreters. “That thoroughness continues as we develop learning plans and promotions that allow you to make more money at our company,” Cole says. “We have processes to eliminate biases; like, men are typically the only ones who ask for raises. We help to create equal wealth for women.”
Among the many challenges exacerbated by the pandemic is maintaining balance between profit, a social mission and values. These things cost money, like the additional $100,000 dollars used to boost wages. “It’s balancing the operational needs with the human and social mission desires,” Cole says. “I’d add that the hardest thing to do is to show up every day in a good way, especially during the pandemic. But I’ve been blessed and granted privilege a lot of people don’t have. I wanted to figure out how to do as well as I can for my peers who are BIPOC. Stepping aside and letting people who are from diverse backgrounds is another part of the balance. Allowing them to have a voice at the table.”
Of course, a restaurant operation sinks or achieves blast-off depending on the menu. In order to meet Just Fare’s environmental and social justice standards, as well as fit its delivery model—the food Cole decided on had to travel well, not be crazy expensive, use produce and meat from local vendors and farmers as often as possible, be mostly organic and healthy, and always be delicious and easily reheatable.
Featured on the menu are roasted tahini chicken with garlic confit—whole or half chicken orders or build your own bowl or flatbread; harissa braised pork with caraway and cumin—build your own bowl or flatbread; Adda Veggie cakes made with ingredients from a local, female-owned company out of El Cerrito; housemade yeasted flatbreads made with a mix of AP and buckwheat flours and Séka Hills olive oil; an assortment of salads including beet and farro with shaved fennel and crumbled feta, and a chopped salad with romaine, radicchio, Ceci beans, sugar snap peas and lemon garlic tahini dressing. Sauces, sides and starters offer up roasted pepper sauce, cilantro hot sauce, lemon herb yogurt made with house-made yogurt, crisp Mary’s Free Range Chicken cardamom wings and a flavorful, house-made labneh dip.
“The fridges of people who order from us don’t have to be graveyards,” Cole says. “Sometimes I say it tastes even better the next day. This food is flavorful, because we use herbs and spices that have strong profiles; like the lemons and chili oils and the harissa. The seasonal ingredients, we’re lucky in California to have so many available.”
Returning to the idea of a kitchen kingdom, Cole dethrones himself. “I count my blessings every day,” he says. “One of my main jobs is getting out of the way of capable, talented, intelligent, driven people at Just Fare. That’s the culture we’ve developed. Everyone just wants to show up as a good person in the world. I’m most proud of our community kitchen work and maintaining our values: paying well, buying organic, supplying people in communities who need it with good quality food.”