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Baristas become their own bosses at new South Berkeley cafe

The Alchemy Collective serves single-origin drip from Verve Coffee Roasters and signature house blend or espresso drinks.

The Alchemy Collective serves single-origin drip from Verve Coffee Roasters and signature house blend or espresso drinks.

At the intersection of Adeline and MLK in South Berkeley, six baristas have opened the Alchemy Collective Cafe.

Located in a small storefront at the Firehouse Art Collaborative, one block from the Ashby BART station, the alchemists are attempting to set themselves apart with the best caffeinated elixirs in the area.

“This isn’t something that’s prepackaged,” Payam Imani, worker-owner and a grad student at the Academy of Art, said, as he stood watching fellow alchemist Christopher Myers construct a table from reclaimed materials. “It’s something that’s constantly being built and shaped with our own hands. It’s about the process as much as it is about the product.”

For the past year, the Alchemy Collective has served single-cup drip coffee at Phat Beets Farmers Market in North Oakland and at the Arlington Medical Center. While they were waiting to find a space that would fit their needs and their budget, the worker-owner baristas were running a full-service coffee cart at the BioFuel Oasis.

Not only did the Alchemy Collective successfully raise more than $10,000 last summer through a fundraiser, but they also purchased a top-of-the-line La Marzocco espresso machine. In addition, the baristas secured a 150-square-foot space at 3140 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, which opened in February.

What sets this café a part from others is that nearly everything inside the space has been constructed from reclaimed materials and crafted by hand. The baristas also got a permit to make the shop as a mobile coffee cart to reduce start-up costs.

As a result, the café has no running water; which means employees have to wash dishes at an off-site. The bar behind the Alchemy Collective is actually on wheels and all water for coffee drinks comes from large jugs stored onsite.

Alchemy also has released its first signature blend of Guatemalan and El Salvadorian beans and has asked customers to suggest names that will be voted on by the collective. The person who suggested the winning name will receive a free bag of the blend. The yet-to-be-named blend is crafted by OneNinetySeven coffee roasters - owned by collective member Eric Thoreson - who also roasts the decaffeinated espresso blend.

The cafe is open 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. As worker-owners, the idea of living wages is only aspirations for the future. According to Myers, the alchemists consider their current incarnation to be a stepping-stone to a larger full-service café with food, entertainment and a space for events.

“If you’re starting a business with no capital, cooperative or not, you’re going to have to move in small steps,” Myers said. “But there’s something about that I like. We’re forced to make every decision carefully and we’re forced to do everything on our own. I think people can see the effort we’ve put into this.”

About Nick Rahaim