While Oakland’s Uptown residents search for a place to pretend to do work while chain-smoking and listening to obscure punk, John Mardikian is busy scrubbing, painting, fixing plumbing, and doing general repairs on the space where Mama Buzz—and before that, Papa Buzz—had been in some form or another for over a decade.
Mardikian is doing quick renovations with plans to reopen the spot under the name Telegraph, possibly as soon as the next First Friday, which falls on February 3. He will be selling homemade sausages, pastries, beer, and coffee, all for under $10.
Mardikian took over Jade Benetatos’s lease on Mama Buzz and bought all the equipment and the liquor license after some brief negotiations that took place after Benetatos closed Mama Buzz’s doors on December 17. Benetatos had run Mama Buzz for a little over four years as a café and art gallery that was notable for being the one of the original art galleries during the beginning of the Art Murmur event and for hosting up-and-coming bands like the tUnE-yArDs and the Big Kids.
“This one fell into my lap in a sort of way,” Mardikian said, which is certainly true. In fact, his father is a partial owner of the building, which rents residential space above the café where Mardikian lived when it was Papa Buzz back in 1999.
According to Benetatos, when she decided to sell Mama Buzz, she went to her landlord Haig Mardikian—who is John Mardikian’s father—with buyers who were interested in keeping the business, along with the clientele and the cafe’s artsy personality. Her intent was to ask the landlord to renew her 5-year lease, which was set to expire in August, with the new buyer’s name.
However, Mardikian said that he and his father decided not to renew the lease, because the space needed an extensive amount of repairs before a new owner could take over. It needs new floors, new plumbing, and new electric work, and the entire kitchen needs to be reworked before the space is ready to house a business, Mardikian said.
The building had already been dilapidated before Benetatos took over Mama Buzz in 2007, Benetatos said. Since then she has redone the patio, which included rebuilding the moldy, disintegrating walls and installing a roof. She painted the floors, replaced the windows, doors and toilets, and did work on the plumbing issues and the art gallery, she said.
Despite her efforts, which were largely done by herself, the older building still needed a lot more work. And with residents living above the café space, Mardikian said that his father weren’t comfortable letting the new buyers do that kind of invasive work. The landlord decided to not renew the lease with Benetatos’ buyers, and instead Mardikian took over the lease, and began doing renovations. Though Benetatos offered to sell him the Mama Buzz business so that he could continue to run it under that name and keep the reputation that comes with it, he opted out and decided to open a new business in the same spot.
“My intent and my father’s intent was not to take away someone’s business. And that’s certainly not what happened here. We relieved her of the terms of her lease. It was the best-case scenario in a worst-case scenario kind of way,” Mardikian said.
But Benatatos said she is still confused about the situation. Benetatos’ impression from her conversations with Mardikian is that the space needed to be gutted entirely before it was in any condition to open to the public. If the needed renovations aren’t that extensive, and Mardikian is able to open within weeks of transferring the lease, Benetatos wonders why he didn’t buy Mama Buzz as a business.
“Their excuse was that they didn’t want me or my buyers to renovate because they are particular about their building. That was a lie,” she said. “I could have sold the business, which is not just the space, but it’s the notoriety and clientele. I could have sold it, and walked away with something. But now I just walked away with debt and I have nothing.”
Markidian and the new manager, Jason Lujick, do plan to keep some of the characteristics that made Mama Buzz what it was and what kept the customers coming back, Lujick said. The art gallery will continue and they will serve crafty, homemade food with special attention to the quality of the coffee. The menu won’t be entirely vegetarian, but if the neighborhood demands vegetarian options, Lujick said he will gladly provide them.
There will no longer be live bands and musical shows, though. The noise was a nuisance for the residents of the building, Markidian said, but added that he thinks it would be fun if someone wants to pop in with an acoustic guitar every now and again. But no more metal shows and drumming at one in the morning, he promised.
Markidian and Lujick have even hired a few of Mama Buzz’s old employees to help open the new space. “It’s going to be familiar and different all at once,” Markidian said.