Despite pandemic, Piedmont Avenue’s Timeless Coffee doing fine
By Lou Fancher
RJ Leimpeter, the founder of Timeless Coffee on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue, says the first few months of the pandemic lockdown were downright scary.
Along with partner Sam Fugate and head baker and vegan confectioner Violetta Berlanga (recently Slocum), Leimpeter hunkered down. Paula Wells, Leimpeter’s mother-in-law, used her financial acumen to hustle after federal Paycheck Protection Programs loans made available last year, and staff accepted reduced hours or chose to go on unemployment. Online and pickup orders for the company’s to-go-friendly products equaled survival. Leimpeter says customers “found small daily victories” by stepping out to get a morning Joe and doughnuts.
“We were able to hold down the fort,” he said. “Because of my staff, especially long-term employees — I couldn’t sing their praises any more than this — they really stepped up. I was floored by their commitment.”
As of early August, staff who had worked reduced hours are ramping up as restrictions ease, despite ongoing worries and with safeguards due to COVID-19’s Delta variant. Others, employees who took time off to protect their health, continue to be supported by Leimpeter and other team leaders.
“Throughout, we’ve communicated with staff on a daily basis,” says Leimpeter.
As the former head roaster at San Francisco’s Sightglass Coffee and someone who has lived for 17 years just six blocks from the community hub-like café that he founded on Piedmont Avenue in 2012, he has an innate understanding of employee perspectives.
“When other places started to reopen, we held our ground with our staff about comfort levels. We waited for the vaccine rollout. We waited for the science to come out.”
Dealing with customers about masking became an ongoing conversation. The staff all wore masks, and indoor capacity during the past year was never at more than 10 or 20%. Some customers thought Timeless should be more open, according to comments he heard or read on the shop’s highly active social media platforms.
“We’d say we understood but wanted to keep staff and customers safe. The unified front meant there wasn’t too much pushback.”
Applications arriving this summer have Leimpeter feeling optimistic, even excited. Because Timeless occupies a niche market as a 100% plant-based coffee roastery and all-vegan bakery with menu items made in-house daily, baristas are plentiful. With the bakery, extra training is involved, but a recent trend is more mutligenerational and Latinx applicants interested in working at a vegan bakery.
That pleases Leimpeter and Fugate in part because it suits the company’s long interest in quiet, behind-the-scenes allyship with Black and Latinx communities and businesses. In addition to support for diversity and equity in the food industry, Leimpeter says a parallel goal is awareness and access to vegan food across the broadest customer spectrum. Sustainable agriculture and stewardship of the land also fall into the company’s circle of focus.
“I try not to get too into that political side of things, but you know, we made a choice to be an all-vegan business. From a human rights standpoint, we try to listen to the heartbeat of society. I decided after May 2020 to actually stop talking and focus on listening to social protest against systemic oppression.”
A few blocks west of Timeless on Piedmont Avenue, Darren Preston (aka Danny Malibu) of the fellow vegan establishment Malibu’s Burgers benefited from a gesture from Timeless during the rough-and-rollicking transition from pop-up truck to a bricks-and-mortar location. When his truck — actually, an aging black school bus — nearly electrocuted him and a fire caused it to break down completely, Preston said Timeless in December gave him access to their kitchens to fill customer orders.
“They didn’t post anything or do a “save the Black complex” thing, they just helped, which is a rarity,” he said.
Leimpeter pushes back the praise, saying, “Sam (Leimpeter’s business partner) had fallen in love with their product and had posted about it on our social media. He and Dan had hit it off, and we’d all become friends. I’m a Bay Area native, and I’ve always loved the diversity of Oakland, so we weren’t seeking out anything other than supporting another vegan business, especially a Black-owned business. I’m a white male, so I’m not exactly a native part of that community, but you have this vegan culture that’s so exciting. Previously, there was a white, yuppie-food stigma to being a vegan business, and we knew we could help avoid that by putting out the word and supporting them.”
Improbably, until he tells the complete story, by the end of August the opening is planned of a third Timeless location, in addition to the Piedmont Avenue and Berkeley establishments. The lease for a new shop at 1700 Webster in Oakland was signed in late 2019, before the pandemic. When COVID-19 hit, the agreement was put on pause with the landlord and future tenant agreeing to proceed as soon as it was safe.
“Why open now and why Oakland?” Leimpeter asks, then laughs and points to the intricate, artistic tattoos visible on his forearms. “I’ve been coming to downtown Oakland for years, and you can see (17th Street establishment) Temple Tattoo’s work right on me. It’s an ever-changing area on 17th Street, with businesses open during the daytime and fine dining in the early evenings. There wasn’t much morning coffee activity, which is what we’ll bring.”
Asked about future directions for vegan food and sourcing the finest high-quality beans, Leimpeter admits he’s more interested in stories than trends or statistics.
“Where I see the most progress is seeing vegan food in Black and Brown cultures, getting into food deserts, creating more options and being adopted by more pro athletes who thrive on vegan and vegetarian diets. And the stories behind the beans are the best. We put a face with the product whenever we can. For example, one story is a women cooperative formed by a woman who saw problems in her region. She knew that to create job opportunity, she had to start the coffee bean cooperative. Now there are hundreds of women-led cooperatives in that region.”
Even so, there are a few statistics Timeless does follow: the number of donuts and croissants that “flew off the shelf” during the pandemic and hopefuls who hanker for waffles on Sunday mornings. “We plan to get the kitchen back up to full level by fall or the holidays,” Leimpeter promises. Barring unforeseen delays in final approvals, the Webster shop will open during the last week of August. For more information, visit timelesscoffee.com.