Owner Saves Historic Cafe From Closure With Changes

Photo: Craig Becker, the owner of Cafe Mediterraneum, enjoys a cup of coffee at the cafe. Some say the historic coffee spot was saved by Becker, who made it appealing to more customers.
Chris McDermut/Photo
Craig Becker, the owner of Cafe Mediterraneum, enjoys a cup of coffee at the cafe. Some say the historic coffee spot was saved by Becker, who made it appealing to more customers.

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Buying a cup of coffee at Caffe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue means stepping into a piece of Berkeley's cultural history, representing an exchange of ideas and experiences across age and socioeconomic barriers.

However, the spirit of the coffeehouse - historically a meeting place for artists, intellectuals and activists - was nearly lost in 2006, with some saying its unique character is still at risk.

More than four years ago, the business owner at the time, who went by Kwan, could not reckon with the Telegraph and People's Park "scene" that area business owners find challenging to deal with even today, according to Craig Becker, the Med's current owner, who customers said brought the cafe back from the brink.

As Kwan, who spoke little English, struggled to resolve confrontations between unruly customers, the homeless began to dominate the cafe's social scene, littering the floorspace with dirty laundry, Becker said.

"It got grungier and grungier," coffeehouse regular Christopher Kohler said. "It was becoming a homeless coffee center."

In 2006, the Med was nearly sold to entrepreneurs who wanted to transform the space into an Indian restaurant, but Becker and his brother - who owned the property but not the business itself - did not approve of the Med's sale and decided instead to purchase it from Kwan themselves.

"That was sort of problematic," Becker said. "We wanted to preserve (the Med's) historical significance."

During the year before he purchased the business, Becker - a former wholesale jewelry salesman - spent his weekends working as a barista at the original Peet's Coffee & Tea on Walnut and Vine streets, learning about all aspects of the coffee business. However, he wanted to provide the Med's customers with a distinct experience and drink.

"(Peet's) wouldn't let me make latte art," he said. "It couldn't be replicated or standardized in the corporate brand."

Rather than pre-grinding beans far in advance - a common practice Becker said he observed at coffee shops, including the Med - the coffee beans served at the Med today are purchased from a local roaster in Santa Clara and freshly ground for taste.

"As soon as you grind coffee, it starts losing its flavor," Becker said.

Some patrons said that, although Becker rescued the Med, he has diluted its Berkeley flavor. By focusing so explicitly on coffee, some say Becker is sacrificing the venue's social purpose.

But while Becker, a self-proclaimed gourmet coffee aficianado, did simplify the cafe's menu, reducing the number of edible items - the Med used to serve such fare as french fries and hamburgers - and shifting its focus to coffee, an expanded diversity of patrons was high on his list of priorities, he said.

Becker nailed wood over the electrical sockets in the downstairs level to preserve the cafe's historic image of conversation and intermingling while simultaneously installing electrical outlets in the upstairs portion of the cafe to attract student patrons - who had stopped frequenting the Med during its decline. Becker also hired a more diverse set of workers, including several students, he said.

"The Med has a tradition of being a place where you meet up and socialize," Becker said. "There's a certain amount of cross-socialization between groups - more than a lot of places here (in Berkeley)."


Noor Al-Samarrai covers Berkeley communities. Contact her at [email protected]

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