Collin Doran stands outside his Homemade Cafe in Berkeley. The Stars of David in the mural are made of bacon strips. (Photo/Charlotte Doran)
Collin Doran stands outside his Homemade Cafe in Berkeley. The Stars of David in the mural are made of bacon strips. (Photo/Charlotte Doran)

With a $5 ask, Homemade Cafe fights hunger on Berkeley’s streets

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

Collin Doran’s grandfather taught him to “never look down on anyone.”

Those words have stuck with him to this day, and Doran credits his late grandfather Leo Merzon for the inspiration behind an effort that’s gained international attention.

Doran, the owner of Berkeley’s Homemade Cafe, offers the “Everybody Eats” program that lets customers buy a meal of scrambled eggs, potatoes and toast for someone in need for $5.

“You never know where someone’s coming from, or what they’ve been through,” Doran told J. “I believe that food, shelter and health care are basic human rights, but unfortunately our society doesn’t provide that for everyone. By doing this, I can make a small effect on my community.”

His other influence: the Black Panthers, a revolutionary group founded in Oakland in the mid-1960s, that provided free lunches in its grassroots efforts to fill people’s daily needs.

Homemade Cafe, located at 2454 Sacramento St. at Dwight Way, is a neighborhood fixture that opened in 1979.

Doran, 53, is a Berkeley native who first worked at Homemade Cafe — though at a second, short-lived Emeryville location — when he was on breaks from college at NYU.

While he planned on becoming a lawyer, restaurant work came naturally to him. He had memories of helping his mother do everything from baking bread to braising brisket to making chopped liver. Latkes often show up as a cafe special at holiday time.

A mural outside the eatery mashes up several of his influences and interests. The images include a pancake stack that proclaims “End Racism,” a fried egg that states “Black Lives Matter” and two Stars of David formed by bacon strips. He has “bacon” tattooed on one forearm, “eggs” on the other — two ingredients that are essential to how he earns his living.

His parents were avowed leftists and atheists, but Hanukkah and Passover were celebrated at home. (His mother called them “pagan seders.”)

Doran’s outdoor parklet is dedicated to the memory of his parents, Terry and Lenore Doran, with quotes from each of them: “Nothing’s too good for the working man” from his father and “I was a success, both my boys love to cook” from his mother.

I believe that food, shelter and health care are basic human rights.

He ended up working in restaurants as his career and was a longtime employee of Homemade Cafe when he bought it from its founders in 2011.

Homemade Cafe is a breakfast and lunch spot with regulars who frequent it multiple times a week. Doran seeks to pay his workers a living wage, so the gratuity is built into the price. Even the dishwashers — traditionally the lowest-paid workers in a kitchen — make $25 an hour, and he plans to turn the cafe into a worker-owned cooperative.

Still, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Last year, inflation was overwhelming his business and he feared he might have to close. He launched a GoFundMe campaign in October, and Homemade Cafe’s supporters came through for Doran.

In March, Doran formalized his longtime practice of giving away food to the hungry and dubbed it “Everybody Eats.” Berkeleyside, a nonprofit news site, ran a story about “Everybody Eats” that month. Other national news outlets, including the Washington Post, followed. Doran has spoken to media outlets as far away as New Zealand.

Those hearing about the program from around the globe have made donations through the GoFundMe or directly on the restaurant’s website. The fundraiser crossed $47,000 in mid-May. A sample message from a contributor: “I may not live anywhere near Berkeley, but wanted to help you in your quest to feed the hungry and homeless,” wrote someone from Alberta, Canada. Doran said customers also contribute when they come into the restaurant.

Even before he started “Everybody Eats,” Doran fed those in need. Like many restaurant owners, he has relationships with hungry folks he sees around the neighborhood. Doran would tell them they should ask him for a meal, rather than asking customers for assistance.

He has welcomed the media attention around “Everybody Eats” for two reasons: it will allow him to feed more people, and it might inspire other restaurant owners to do the same.

It’s clearly resonating with his customers.

Bri Rogoff of El Sobrante used to live nearby and was a regular. She’s become a regular again,  even though she lives farther away. The food is delicious, she said, but it’s the “super-homey vibe, like a ‘Cheers’ bar, for breakfast” that keeps her coming back.

She also loves “Everybody Eats.”

“It makes me feel like I’m contributing to the community and helping those in need,” Rogoff said. “I want to help, but it’s hard to know where to begin, and he makes it easy to do something.”

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."