Push to Change North Berkeley ‘Gourmet Ghetto’ Name Divides Business Owners

“Gourmet Ghetto” signs will soon come down for the holidays, but their fate remains uncertain after a North Berkeley business group decided to temporarily suspend the name Sept. 26, 2019. (Nicholas Iovino / CNS)

BERKELEY, Calif. (CN) – In a move sure to invite as much backlash as praise, a North Berkeley business group on Thursday decided to temporarily ax the name “Gourmet Ghetto,” citing the racially charged nature of the decades-old moniker.

“Our decision was, in the marketing, let’s move to something else,” said Heather Hensley, executive director of the North Shattuck Association. “In this day and age, it seemed a little tone-deaf.”

The decision came after weeks of debate over the use of a name some critics argue is both elitist and insulting to minority groups. Critics say the word “ghetto” stirs up painful feelings associated with segregated neighborhoods, not to mention its use as a derogatory descriptor for certain facets of American black culture.

The controversy started when Nick Cho, co-owner of North Berkeley’s newest cafe Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, told the publication Berkeleyside in August that the longstanding brand should go the way of the dodo bird, citing racial connotations of the word “ghetto.”

Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in North Berkeley gained national attention after its owner, Nick Cho, publicly advocated changing the neighborhood’s longtime moniker “Gourmet Ghetto,” citing racially charged connotations of the word ghetto. (Nicholas Iovino / CNS)

His position gained new steam this month when pioneering chef Alice Waters, owner of North Berkeley’s most famous high-end restaurant Chez Panisse, told the San Francisco Chronicle that she too supports nixing the name, which has been around since the 1970s.

At a business association meeting Thursday, Cho described how his staff, which is 90% non-white, finds the term confusing, upsetting and unsettling.

“It’s a moral and ethical issue for folks I talk to,” Cho said, adding that African Americans who live and work in the neighborhood tell him they feel insulted having to walk by and look at “Gourmet Ghetto” signs each day.

Not everyone agrees with Cho’s perspective. On the business group’s Facebook page, dozens of commenters chimed in with their opinions, some arguing that there are “bigger fish to fry” and that the debate is another example of political correctness gone awry.

Despite the differing views, it seems unsurprising that civic leaders would address the issue in a city and region known for taking controversial stands to eliminate language perceived as insensitive to certain groups.

This summer, Berkeley passed a law replacing the word “manhole” with “maintenance hole” in an effort to eliminate gender-based terms from city code. Across the bay in San Francisco, city officials voted in July to rebrand “convicted felons” as “justice-deprived persons.”

Known as the birthplace of California cuisine, Chez Panisse is the most well known restaurant in North Berkeley. Businesses are temporarily nixing the area’s “Gourmet Ghetto” brand in response to complaints that the name is racially insensitive. (Nicholas Iovino / CNS)

Not every local business owner agrees with abolishing the “Gourmet Ghetto” name. Some even resented the way Cho thrusted the issue into the media spotlight before discussing it with fellow business owners.

Kirk McCarthy of North Berkeley’s 60-year-old Arts and Crafts Cooperative Inc. (ACCI) said he appreciates Cho’s concerns, but does not appreciate how he raised those concerns with the media. The issue gained national attention after The New York Times highlighted the debate in its California Today newsletter Monday.

“It makes me wonder what ‘wrecking ball’ is all about. That’s a metaphor,” said McCarthy, who stressed he was speaking only on behalf of himself and not his business.

Cho explained that he spoke to several publications to promote the opening of his new cafe in August, and that he never expected his perspective to make headlines. His comments about his problems with the name amounted to 1% of his conversations with food writers and reporters, he said.

French chef and North Berkeley restaurant owner Grégoire Jacquet and his wife Tara voiced frustration that the North Shattuck Association seemingly decided to change the district’s name without consulting other business owners.

Chef Grégoire Jacquet, owner of the North Berkeley restaurant Gregoire, voiced frustration with a fellow business owner’s decision to publicly criticize the North Berkeley business district’s longtime name, “Gourmet Ghetto,” at a business association meeting Sept. 26, 2019. (Nicholas Iovino / CNS)

“It sounds like you already decided and based it on what Nick had to say,” Tara Jacquet said. “He created drama in this neighborhood that might never be mended. That someone can bully their way into making a change and it worked, it seems like the wrong way.”

Mary Canavan, of Thornwall Properties in North Berkeley, said because “Gourmet Ghetto” signs were set to be taken down for the holidays anyway, the organization decided to put the naming debate on hold until the New Year.

“Because this was splashed across the headlines, it made it emotional,” Canavan said. “We were hoping it would give us a cooling-off period.”

Businesses did not coin the term “Gourmet Ghetto,” and there is ongoing debate as to who originated the name. Some credit legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, while others trace the brand’s roots to Berkeley humorist and writer Alice Kahn or comedian and performance artist Darryl Henriques, according to Berkeleyside.

Hensley explained that the business association never embraced the name until a marketing consultant suggested a few years ago that they use the already well-known moniker to promote themselves on social media.

“We were told you already have a brand,” Hensley said. “Use it.”

The North Shattuck Association, established in 2001, includes about 160 businesses in the area surrounding Shattuck and Vine Streets in North Berkeley.

Margo Lowe, owner of the M. Lowe & Co. fine jewelry business, lamented how this naming debate has garnered so much attention. She said the focus should instead be on “the good work these businesses are doing” in supporting local schools and giving back to their community.

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