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Oakland at Work: Cafe Underwood

on December 11, 2015

At 8 p.m. on a Saturday evening, a damp breeze forced Oakland dwellers into puffy coats, and Café Underwood’s windows glowed with light and motion. At this moment, the café was home to five customers, spread across the square room with either beer or coffee in hand. Their laptops lit the space before them.

Some scribbled notes by hand, until bright iMessage bubbles pulled their fingers back towards their keyboards. Others spoke with fervor into their headphones, with little apparent awareness that they were not alone in the room.

Stephen Boyd, like his customers, was in constant motion behind the counter. He scrubbed plastic bins and organized lines of shelves, which displayed stacks of mugs, glasses, sodas and lopsided piles of bread loaves.

In certain corners of the room were what appeared to be antique typewriters, some of which were inscribed with the word “Underwood.” On wires that ran across the walls hung the bright artwork of students from a nearby school, Oakland Technical High.

For Boyd, this evening was like any other: non-stop movement, even when business was slow. As at many food service jobs, there’s always work to be done at Underwood. But Boyd doesn’t mind. He enjoys that aspect of the job. It means there’s always another problem to be solved, or another way to keep busy.

Café Underwood sits at the corner of 41st Street and Broadway. It opened in August, 2014, about a year after this Oakland neighborhood began to significantly change, according to Boyd. “Five years ago, I wouldn’t have walked through this neighborhood at night,” he said.

Underwood is part of a wave of businesses that are shifting the character of the area. Its style attracts a specific kind of customer: the remote employee. For hours, these customers can spread out, plug in and work.

Although it serves indulgent meals, like vegan chicken sandwiches and shrimp and grits, Underwood is more of a café and doesn’t pull in as much money as a traditional restaurant. But the café atmosphere is another reason Boyd likes working here. He’s worked many other jobs in food service and retail. If it was about the money, he could get a job as a server at a bigger restaurant. As a manager at Underwood, though, he gets to be around lingering customers and the people on his small staff all day.

Here, he says as he looks out from beneath his yellow beanie and dark glasses, his favorite part of the job is that he gets to make people happy.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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