Oakland businesses help CommonWealth pub rebound after fire

CommonWealth Café and Pub owner Ross Adair works on repairs to his business, which has been closed since a July 8 fire.

CommonWealth Café and Pub owner Ross Adair works on repairs to his business, which has been closed since a July 8 fire.

As a tile saw screeched and workers assembled a matrix of red squares in wet cement, Ross Adair took a break from painting to explain why his Oakland pub has been closed for repairs since July 8.

On that Sunday nearly three months ago, Adair stood in the kitchen prepping food for the following day when he heard an unsettling noise upstairs, like a dropped plate, he said. At first the smell of electrical smoke was faint, but it grew stronger. Then Adair looked up the stairs. “I saw these roaring flames coming across the ceiling,” he said, “and I had a gut feeling the fire extinguisher wasn’t going to do anything.”

After the fire department put out the blaze, leveling doors and tearing through walls in the process, Adair and his wife, Ahna, surveyed the damage to their business. Aside from a pair of gaping holes in the ceiling caused by the fire department’s efforts, the first-floor pub was largely unaffected. But upstairs in the mezzanine—the low-ceilinged story between the pub and the apartment above it—the flames had charred walls and wrecked the bar’s refrigeration system. The whole building smelled like a campfire, Adair said.

CommonWealth Café and Pub was doing well before the fire, Adair said—in fact, the couple had been exceeding their sales projections. He said the pub was doing well because it had moved into an underserved neighborhood and become a gathering place for soccer fans. Before it opened in May 2010 on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and 29th Street in Oakland’s Koreatown Northgate district, there was no café in the neighborhood, he said. Televised soccer games also drew customers, because Scottish-born Adair loves the sport and promoted the pub as a place to watch. “I felt like I developed a niche in the existing social scene,” he said.

After two years of success, the fire “felt like the end of an era,” Adair said. “There was a period with a lot of uncertainty. We didn’t know how it was going to unfold.”

As it turned out, they had more support than they could have imagined.

CommonWealth’s competitors extended their own resources to help the Adairs pull through the two or three months the couple thought it would take to fix up the pub, hosting benefits and other events designed to raise funds. The goal, said Adair, was to keep CommonWealth active during the closure so customers wouldn’t forget about it—and because they missed the work.

In the weeks after the fire, owners Rebecca Boyle and fraggle (the only name he uses) of Beer Revolution, a bar and bottle store in Jack London Square, put on a benefit for CommonWealth, at which they offered beers regularly sold at CommonWealth and donated the profits to the Adairs. “We love them,” fraggle wrote in an email, explaining why they’d organized the benefit. “Times are tough enough as it is. We will always do what we can for them!”

While the Adairs were grateful for the help, they wanted to distance themselves from fundraisers, so instead they started collaborating with other local businesses on special CommonWealth food- and beer-related events that would give their employees a chance to work and keep the pub engaged with the public.

On August 4 they held a pop-up pub food event at Linden Street Brewery, near the Port of Oakland. The small brewery’s beer is normally served on tap at CommonWealth, and the event paired the Adair’s classic British fare with Linden Street’s beer. CommonWealth staffers served fish and chips, while local bartenders poured beer for an estimated 300 to 400 people, who helped raise funds for the business by purchasing food and drinks.

“We have a working relationship, but we also became friends,” said the brewery’s founder, Adam Lamoreaux, explaining his eagerness to help the Adairs. “I think CommonWealth is one of the gems of Oakland. Ross and Ahna are everything that Oakland is about right now. They’re a husband and wife who are doing things for themselves.”

While Linden Street hosted the function, it was also a collaboration between several local businesses. Grand Tavern owner Temoor Noor offered his restaurant’s kitchen, and CommonWealth employees spent two mornings there, preparing food from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., before the restaurant started service. Sophia Chang, owner of Kitchener Oakland, a commercial kitchen in downtown, provided refrigerator space for the prepared food. Trueburger owners Greg Eng and Jason Low donated fixings for a hundred hot dogs. Sal Bednarz of Actual Café contributed savory scones, and Blake Joffe and Amy Remsen of Beauty’s Bagel Shop, which had just opened down the street from CommonWealth, provided deviled eggs.

Oakland apparel company Oaklandish also chipped in. The company designed and printed t-shirts with a re-worked CommonWealth logo on the front and Oaklandish and Linden Street Brewery logos on the back, which they donated to the Adairs to be sold at the event. “It’s a symbolic thing, about Oakland brands getting together and trying to take care of each other,” Lamoreaux said of the shirts.

And above all, said Adair, the event was about “getting the band back together,” since most of the pub’s 15 employees were there, either working or attending.

Over the summer, local businesses continued offering the CommonWealth crew opportunities to work together. In mid-August, the Adairs teamed up with Beer Revolution again for a Sunday barbeque: CommonWealth provided the food and took home the profits. When Glenn Kaplan and Chris Foott, the owners of Make Westing, a restaurant and bar in Uptown, celebrated their business’s one-year anniversary on August 22, they hired the Adairs to help cater.

Most recently, chef Justin Yu of Hawker Fare suggested the Adairs use the popular rice bowl shop’s space on a Sunday, when it’s closed. “CommonWealth Beer Fare” took over the restaurant on September 9, selling tickets for a six-course menu paired with local beers. Adair said the event not only benefited their business, but local breweries, too, which had suffered from the pub’s closure because they’d lost an important sales outlet.

Overall, Adair said, while the collaborations were a modest financial help when it came to repairing CommonWealth, they were key in giving financial support to the pub’s employees, who were largely left without work after the fire. “It’s kept a lot of our guys going,” Adair said. “It’s kind of kept us all together.” Two employees were hired by other businesses—Actual Café and Beauty’s Bagel Shop each took on a staffer.

The Adairs say they feel grateful for the help they have received and described the deep sense of interconnectedness and belonging that it fostered. “We had good relationships with local businesses, but this really solidified it,” Ahna Adair said.

“Support changes your perspective,” Ross Adair said, noting that he and his wife previously hadn’t been quite aware of the regard their colleagues held for them. “It made us feel pretty proud.”

In his view, the collaboration between local entrepreneurs springs from what he calls a “non-cynical” attitude to entrepreneurship and a common vision for Oakland. “We’re not in a rush to make loads of money,” he said. “It’s about establishing this great feeling of community.” Many of the business owners he’s worked with launched their ventures around the same time—in 2009 or 2010—he said, and they share “a belief in Oakland” and the outlook that “if we all support each other, we should all thrive.”

“If you choose hospitality as your business, it’s almost in your DNA to be there for someone in your community who comes on though times,” Lamoreaux agreed. “There’s a real camaraderie in this industry.”

For Ahna Adair, the outpouring of support from local businesses is an example of what it means to be part of a community. People liberally expound on the abstract concepts of “community” and “support local,” she said, but in this case, “It actually happened.”

“Who knows?” her husband added. “It may have laid the foundation for future collaboration on a more serious level—and that can only be good.”

The Adairs said they are still awaiting building, electrical and health inspections, but hope to re-open CommonWealth in early October. As they shared their story on a late Wednesday afternoon in the pub, furniture was still haphazardly arranged around ladders, paint cans and power tools.

Amid the jumble, Ahna Adair was assembling a disjointed picture frame as employee Dan Hatcher stood nearby, drinking a beer after a day of painting and spackling. Hatcher was a cook at CommonWealth before the fire and has worked with the owners since then, cooking at the Linden Street Brewery pop-up event and making repairs to the scorched pub.

“I just stopped by yesterday to say ‘Hi’ and they put me to work,” Hatcher teased Ahna, who looked up from the broken frame and laughed. “I’m pretty sure I have a job still,” he said.


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