Service with a smile: Ayal Amzel has been running Yali’s Café in Berkeley for two decades. (Photo/Alix Wall)
Service with a smile: Ayal Amzel has been running Yali’s Café in Berkeley for two decades. (Photo/Alix Wall)

20 years of Yali’s Café, a mom-and-pop UC Berkeley mainstay

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Ayal Amzel can point to the exact spot in Yali’s Café, near the south-facing window, where one of his employees was standing about 18 years ago when her water broke. That former employee called him recently, asking whether he might have a summer job available for her daughter — the one who was nearly born at the café.

“The real value of owning a small business like this is the relationships you make through it,” Amzel said.“We’ve watched so many customers’ and employees’ kids grow up. It’s much more than just a place to get coffee or work.”

Amzel and his wife, Leah, just celebrated 20 years of owning Yali’s Café, located at 1920 Oxford St. on the corner of Berkeley Way, just steps from the UC Berkeley campus. They serve drinks, breakfast and lunch, and are open every day.

“We got married two weeks before opening,” Amzel recalled. “I always joke that we didn’t go on a honeymoon, we opened this business instead. We were newly married and doing everything ourselves. We were here at midnight mopping, and here at 5 a.m. making the scones.”

Ayal Amzel and Leah Keleman around the time they opened Yali's Café
Ayal Amzel and Leah Keleman around the time they opened Yali’s Café

Raised on Kibbutz Gesher Haziv in northern Israel, Amzel, who is of Yemenite descent, started learning about the food business through his father, who was the head cook in the kibbutz kitchen. When Amzel followed a girlfriend to Sweden as a young man, he took the same path and spent six years working in restaurants. When the relationship ended, he returned to Israel, where he continued working.

He met the Berkeley-raised Leah Keleman when she was traveling in Israel in 1996, though things didn’t get serious until Amzel came to Los Angeles with his father to open a Jewish deli. The venture immediately flopped, but once he was in the U.S., Amzel decided to move to Berkeley to be with Keleman.

They both knew that “he was either destined to work in another restaurant, or open his own and be the boss. That was a big leap,” Leah recalled. They decided they wanted to run a mom-and-pop business, and the café was their first child (they would go on to have three human children and birth a few more cafés).

Yali's menu in the cafe's early years
Yali’s menu in the cafe’s early years

With a little seed money from Leah’s parents, they opened Yali’s Café in 1999. In 2004 they expanded into the business next door, and starting in 2008 they opened two smaller versions of the café on campus with partner Isaac Lieber, who had a background in finance.

“We came with the Yali’s name, but going forward, Isaac was instrumental in making sure we’d get these bids,” said Amzel. Last year, they opened their third on campus. Lieber’s son Elan is a co-owner of the venture now and manages the newest café.

But it hasn’t been all milk and honey. A definite low point over the years was in February 2016, when Amzel was visiting Israel and was hit by a speeding driver. He suffered multiple life-threatening injuries and fractures that required two months in the hospital in Israel, and then several more months of rehab at home in Berkeley. Leah flew to Israel to be with him, leaving the kids in care of their family, friends and community in the Bay Area, and the business in the hands of Lieber and the staff.

“I was unable to be at the café for about six months total. I was so injured and so far away for so long, but the employees really rallied to keep the business going,” he said. “Besides the amazing employees at Yali’s, who totally stepped up in the most incredible way, my partner Isaac took all of the responsibilities on his shoulders as well. During that time, it was a real reminder of the wonderful café, campus and city community around me. I am so grateful to all of them.”

Saul’s Deli owners Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman helped the Amzels move into the cafe in 1999.
Saul’s Deli owners Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman helped the Amzels move into the cafe in 1999.

While Amzel has never kept his Israeli identity a secret, he’s been adamant about keeping politics out of the café. Being adjacent to a campus known for its activism around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, certain people have come in and tried to engage or debate with him, but he makes it clear that he’s not interested.

“Being affiliated with a university that has so many international students, and meeting people from everywhere, I don’t want the place to be identified with a certain group,” he said.

He’s pleased that graduate students from a wide range of countries and cultures consider Yali’s a home away from home, and proudly spoke of the employees he’s had from Iran and Saudi Arabia.

When Israeli students arrive at Cal, they often make their way to Yali’s. “They’ve heard from other Israeli graduate students that this is a hub to seek information about apartments and babysitters,” Amzel said. “Also, for some of the younger Jewish American students, when there’s trouble on campus, they know they can come here and no one will bother them.”

A version of this story previously appeared on Berkeleyside.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."