Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have a full-on food mystery here.
Over the past few weeks I've been mining the Express archives, researching crucial pit stops on the East Bay foodways. Double D BBQ, this year's Best Of winner for "The Best Barbecue Place You've Never Heard Of," struck a particular chord. Promising tender and lush slow-cooked brisket by-the-pound, the blurb mentions Double D is only open limited hours, three days a week.
I have since gone to Double D on four occasions, and I have yet to eat one barbecued morsel. Facts:
Every time I stop by, there are hungry people milling about the parking lot, rattling the locked doors and peering in the windows.
Store hours are listed differently on Double D's website, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. I have tried visiting during all of these times.
The restaurant does not appear to be out of business. Everything is set up and orderly, and twice the lights have been on. (However, the smoker sits in chains.)
Double D's voicemail, which promises a return call within 24 hours, gleans no results. E-mail has also proven ineffective.
On my last visit, a wishful customer sat in a white conversion van, shaking his head. He looked puzzled, almost hurt. This burly former Oakland cop provided some back story on Double D's chef/owner, Duane Orr. Duane was initially schooled on BBQ at Everett and Jones, before his skills proved to easily surpass his teachers. He's an older "biker guy," who refuses to hire underlings because he thinks they'll "eff up his recipes." And he doesn't have the energy to keep up with his listed hours.
What doesn't add up is Double D's illusion of accessibility. Why create a slick website, replete with CGI graphics of a plane attacking Oakland with Double D flavor bombs? Why produce a video of customer testimonials? What's the point of a robust social media presence (Twitter, Facebook, even LinkedIn)? If you're a cranky hermit chef who can't handle the pressures of popularity, why pretend otherwise?
The ex-cop in the van told me he doesn't usually like BBQ but that "Double D is the kind of place that makes you a convert." I've seen photos of the mouthwatering brisket and hot links, still smoking and drizzled in sauce. I've read reviews that wax reverential and awe-inspired.
Some frustrated Yelpers have floated theories that the whole thing is a put-on, or a drug front. But, like Mulder, I want to believe.
Andronico's Last Rites
You've likely heard that the University Avenue Andronico's in Berkeley wheezed out of business last week. As dying stores do, this one staged a deep-discount wind-down that ensured it would be a pristine skeleton by Saturday. Feeling uneasily similar to the deal vultures marauding the aisles, I paid a visit to Andronico's to see if I could scavenge a bit of human interest from the wreckage.
What was the angle, exactly? The death of an independent, family-run supermarket? That process started when Andronico's declared Chapter 11 in August. The small chain sold its assets to the highest bidder, a frosty-sounding investment firm called Renovo Capital.
Some speculated that all seven stores would be gutted and repurposed, but Renovo soon announced it would keep the 82-year-old chain intact — that is, except for the weakest link on University Avenue. A beleaguered-sounding company spokesman, Adam Alberti, told me that the decision to liquidate the underperforming store was made with the courts (at first I thought he said "with the corpse.") "Shutting this store down was part of a package deal," said Alberti.
Hustling around the aisles, notebook in hand, I tried to gauge the mood of shoppers. Was this a much-beloved neighborhood institution that would be missed for years to come? Didn't seem so. Most seemed to have only a passing interest in the closure. A few car-free types rued that they would lose their go-to spot for a quick gallon of milk. But most people said they never really liked shopping there.
Blame was placed largely on Andronico's prices, easily undercut by competitors like Berkeley Bowl and Trader Joe's. "When Trader Joe's moved into the neighborhood, that was the death knell for Andronico's," said shopper Eleni Sotos.
But of course, the real tragedy in a story like this is the employees. Alberti said the store's fifteen to twenty workers would be welcome to apply for positions at other Andronico's, but "ultimately that's an HR decision." Translation: Things are looking grim. I asked a store manager how everything was going, and he sighed and said, "really, really good" without looking up.
Renovo finally closed the $16 million deal with Andronico's last Thursday, and Bill Andronico issued a canned statement: "Renovo Capital's purchase will allow us to improve our standing in the market and build on the strong brand my family has built over three generations." The words left unsaid: "It's not our store anymore."
No word yet on what will colonize the empty storefront, though rumors of a dollar store and a Fresh and Easy supermarket seem to be getting equal play.
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