Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue spots keep Oktoberfest going year-round
By Lou Fancher
Drop a marble on the corner of Piedmont and Pleasant Valley avenues during Oktoberfest season, and it’s likely to bounce into longtime stores, bars and restaurants catering to the occasion.
With plenty of establishments celebrating the festivities, favorite “hits” could reasonably include a stop at Piedmont Grocery, family-owned since 1956 and offering all the fixings for a do-it-at-home Bavarian feast; or time spent rolling around Cato’s Ale House, a fine place to chat with longtime staff while getting cozy with special Oktoberfest-only items including handmade pretzels and special German beers.
An ambitious odyssey might even land one a few miles away at family-owned Brotzeit Lokal; where the kitchen dishes up authentic Bavarian cuisine and a waterfront biergarten and communal tables amplify fellowship, along with exceptional local or rare beers from small German and Austrian breweries such as Schonramer Gold, Westmalle Dubbel and Celebrator Doppelbock.
With all that deliciousness, camaraderie and community bubbling up in late September and October, the question arises: Must it end? The answer: It doesn’t have to. In fact, for people hoping to sample great beer and munch on red cabbage sauerkraut or flavor-packed sausages year-round — for anyone wanting these venerable venues and others to exist for years to come — there’s reason to extend the good cheer of Oktoberfest.
David Larson assumed the leadership position at Piedmont Grocery in 2007, soon after his father died at age 102. The store has been a staple on Piedmont Avenue under various owners for more than 100 years and stocks everything from gourmet truffle paste to napkins. Larson says the emphasis on product variety began in 1938, when customers who traveled to Europe asked about stocking Perrier water.
“When mineral waters got hot years later, salesmen began coming in to tell us the benefit. I’d show them the six cases we already had,” Larson said in an interview. “My father worked in Los Angeles in the 1930s at a gourmet store and at the Brown Derby. He learned catering and high-end products and brought them back here.”
To run a successful small grocery store, Larson said, “You don’t go in with a specific plan. You just listen to customers and you carry high-quality products. The worst thing that happens is something doesn’t sell. There’s no template.”
If there were a template, it would include community-building investment, consistent customer service, unique and local product selections, knowledgeable staff and a welcoming atmosphere. Larson’s daughter, Amy Pence, is the company’s vice president and author of the shop’s popular blogs, “Cocktail Post,” “Butcher’s Block” and “From the Kitchen Table.”
Larson will serve as Grand Marshall of the 2022 Halloween Parade and recently donated hundreds of meals and served as an honorary judge to the annual Piedmont Beer Competition.
“It’s all connection. A business can get lost when you’ve been here a long time. We get called an institution, but there’s not a lot of permanency. You have to stay visible.”
To keep the spirit of Oktoberfest going, Larson said sausages and potato salad like what was in meals recently donated are always available and that one can get the red cabbage salad recipe through a stop by the deli.
“They can get it from my cook, Rodolfo Sanchez. Ask for the manager, and they’ll work it out,” he said.
Trisha Grover, the general manager of Cato’s Ale House, said community is something that can’t be manufactured.
“I can’t count how many people have told me that Cato’s is like their living room, an extension of their home. That’s what it’s all about; feeling comfortable, safe and connected. Good food and beer really help too.”
If Grover, kitchen manager Manuel Ramos, and most of the cooks, all of whom have worked at Cato’s for 14 years or longer, solidify the casual, fun vibe, Cato’s atmosphere is embellished by half-pound burgers made with Five Dot Ranch beef, hand-tossed pizzas, salad, sandwiches, specials and a rotating “live beer list.” Recent pours include Original Pattern Brewing Company’s Crosshatch Kölsch, Canyon Club Brewery Moraga’s Benevolent Shadow Overlord Lager, Fieldwork Brewing Company Berkeley’s Evie Table Beer and others.
Grover said a core group of employees prevented Cato’s, in operation since 1994, from shutting down during the pandemic. Nearby places that didn’t survive are a loss and leave her thankful the building is owned, not rented, and that regular customers stepped up during the last two years. Some have shown up daily, and others have left oversized tips on their weekly visits.
“Community is everything,” Grover said. “I hire people who want to engage with customers. Philip Christy, our beer buyer, is intentional about getting awesome West Coast beers. We have live music and trivia nights. We converted our employee parking lot into an outdoor dining area. We’re still here, and we’re not going anywhere. We’re woven into the fabric of the community.”
Brotzeit Lokal co-owner Krista Bailey, with ex-husband Tony Granieri, said completion of a community park nearby has increased foot traffic and that business is “going gangbusters.” Despite being perennially short-staffed, their doors have been open except for a few weeks during the pandemic’s early shelter-in-place orders. Lots of to-go orders, a large outdoor space and a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan have kept Brotzeit afloat.
“People came as soon as they could and wore masks. They just craved community,” she said. “But some part of surviving was just dumb luck; some was scrimping, saving, working open-to-close six days a week, re-establishing table service and real cutlery as soon as we were allowed. We felt the love from regular and new customers for sure.”
Brotzeit’s food and beverage menus showcase Bavarian cuisine all year, but during Oktoberfest, Bailey was likely to recommend personal favorites; Andech monastery’s lightly crisp Spezial Hell Festbier, or another beer, Fruh Kolsch, about which she said, “It’s indescribable. It’s like champagne.”
To eat, she leans into schweinshaxe, pork shank braised in sauerkraut and served with spätzle noodles. Granieri, commenting on the aforementioned brews, touts how rare they are outside of Germany and the distinctive flavors of each — creamy, complex, fruity, fresh-bitter, malt sweet/hop bitter balanced, coffee toned and more.
All of this is enough to make a person want to act like a marble. With enough gravity and momentum, with Oktoberfest events perhaps just a gate left open to invite a year of camaraderie and community, journeying along Piedmont Avenue seems like the perfect action to ensure that next year’s Oktoberfest includes the same players and perhaps even a few new “marble stops” to explore.