We don’t drink boba milk tea to lessen our sugar intake. It’s popular because the texture is creamy and the taste is sweet. Add in a handful of tapioca balls and we’ve got our dessert in a tall plastic cup. Yezi Sha, the owner of One Plus in Berkeley, said that most boba shops use a non-dairy creamer to achieve that familiar sensation of creaminess. But non-dairy creamers contain a long list of unwholesome ingredients such as corn syrup and sodium. When Sha opened her cafe in the summer of 2020, she was determined to use whole organic milk in her tea drinks.
Her menu is, of course, inclusive of milks for the lactose intolerant. Customers can substitute oat, almond, soy, or lactose-free milk. Additionally, customers get to choose the sugar level for their tea from a range of 0% to 150%. Sha, who grew up in China, said that milk tea didn’t exist when she was growing up. She said the drink originated in Taiwan about 20 years ago and was targeted at young people. The traditional way of drinking tea in Japan and China didn’t include milk or sugar. “The higher the quality of tea,” Sha said, “the lighter the taste.”
But Sha believes the younger generation liked the taste of something sweeter. “They put in milk creamer and then the boba,” she said. Sha holds a degree in electrical engineering. Whatever methodical approach she took in her studies has also informed the way she runs her cafe. From the history of the products she serves, to the cups and straws they’re served in, Sha has thought through every aspect of her business. She’s concerned about serving healthy drinks and food, but of equal concern to her is the environment and the sustainability of the packaging. One Plus is actively pursuing the production of compostable straws to replace the more-harmful plastic ones.
In addition to the wide-ranging drinks menu, One Plus serves jian bing, a feather-light egg crepe. Jian bing is a street food that Sha used to eat on the way to school. One of the three batter choices is a mix of millet, corn, mung bean, wheat and flax seeds. It’s stuffed with leafy greens and a thin, crispy cracker. Sha wants to add a cold-cut option to the jian bing menu, but regular delays in the supply chain have prevented her from ordering from a preferred vendor.
The pandemic has affected Sha’s business in other ways, as well. “It’s very hard to hire people,” she said. “Restaurant work is a really hard job.” One Plus is located at the foot of the UC Berkeley campus. Student workers have requested part-time hours, so it’s been tough to fill out hours on the schedule. The cafe is tucked away in a courtyard on a fairly quiet street, and foot traffic has fluctuated. Sha believes in her concept, delivering healthy food and serving it in an eco-conscious manner. But she is considering opening a second shop in another neighborhood. When that happens, she’ll have a clearer idea if the location, where parking is often tough, is the main thing keeping One Plus from breaking even. “Not even for a day,” she adds, still sounding optimistic.
The pandemic wasn’t the only reason that Jackie Riley sold Greens & Grains last year, but it did inform her decision. Describing Greens & Grains as a salad bar doesn’t quite do the place justice. Located in the Alameda Marketplace, people are usually lined up at lunchtime to choose which ingredients to put in their custom-made salads. Riley’s business model was smart enough to anchor Greens & Grains with salads, but she also included whole roast chickens, excellent soups, deli sides like potato salad, compact meals-to-go such as chicken pot pies and macaroni and cheese, plus sandwiches. There really is no Bay Area equivalent to Greens & Grains. Every time I decide to quit sugar and banish pizza from my diet, I drive to Alameda and pick up one of her giant salads to go.
Riley opened the stall in 2012 after helping her former partner start the Feel Good Bakery. She went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where she trained as a pastry chef. After working in a variety of kitchens in Chicago, New York and San Francisco, she moved to Alameda. After settling in, she thought, “There isn’t a place to get a fresh, organic salad.” At the same time, she developed a gluten intolerance. Cakes and cookies were out as she switched to a largely plant-based diet.
When Covid-19 first suspended public outings, Riley closed Greens & Grains for eight weeks, “Because nobody knew what was going to happen next.” She began taking phone orders, and set up an area outside for curbside pickups. But with the persistent ups and downs and the arrival of new variants, it prompted the thought in her mind, “It’s time.”
Greens & Grains now belongs to another chef and Alameda resident, Ian Libberton. Riley and Libberton were introduced by a mutual friend. Riley, who was looking for the right buyer, found a chef with years of professional experience. Libberton’s most recent job was at the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco, but he’d also run his own restaurant, managed private catering and was an executive chef with the Hyatt Corporation. He and his wife decided that taking over Greens & Grains would be a great opportunity, with the advantage of a much easier commute.
Libberton quickly announced to Riley’s loyal customers that he wasn’t planning to tamper with her winning formula. “I didn’t have to recreate anything,” he said. “There’s only one recipe that I’ve changed—the enchiladas.” The chef changed the sauce from red to green, and the chicken is now shredded. The good news is he’s gotten positive feedback about them. He’s also keeping her soup recipes unchanged. But he hastened to add, “Since I started cooking in 1983, I’ve enjoyed making soups, so I’ve got a list of 20 new soups that I’ve made.” Since the soup feedback has also been good, Libberton is going to continue making them. But he’s not changing the salads or the homemade dressings. One 21st-century change is coming to Greens & Grains, however. Online ordering will kick in at some point later this year.
Like Yezi Sha at One Plus, Libberton struggles with staffing. Because of that, he and his wife decided to close Greens & Grains on Saturdays. The chef felt that they couldn’t offer good service with only one other employee to help him out. Before the pandemic, there were days when at least four or five people were behind the counter, cooking, prepping food or tending to customers. “I started on May 13th and have had four days off since then,” he said.
Having accepted that for now, Libberton believes that Greens & Grains is mostly Covid-proof. Chiefly because there isn’t a dining room. Greens & Grains lives inside of a food court so, apart from a lonely bench, there aren’t really places to sit. The dishes are served in disposable containers. Customers order their meals and then bring the food home. “The nice thing about us is we’re not fast food,” Libberton said. “We’re organic and healthy.”
One Plus, open Thursday to Monday 8am to 6pm; 2161 Allston Way, Suite C, Berkeley. 510.495.0986. oneplus.applova.menu.
Greens & Grains, open Sunday to Friday, 11am to 6pm; 1650 Park St., Alameda. 510.239.4059. greensandgrains.net.