By Vickie Lewis
For those of you who like to support local small businesses, Well Grounded Tea & Coffee Bar is a great venue to add to your list! This small but mighty family-owned establishment has been serving the El Cerrito community for nearly twelve years, and has amassed a following of regulars who faithfully return to enjoy great coffee, food and snacks, as well as genuine personalized service. The cafe is nestled among several other small businesses in the heart of a residential neighborhood on Stockton Avenue, not far from El Cerrito High School, and is a popular gathering place, particularly with locals and students.
Jen Komaromi, co-owner of Well-Grounded, also owns Jenny K Gift Shop, which is located two doors down from the café. In fact, Jen’s business aspirations led to the establishment of Well Grounded Tea & Coffee Bar. She spent a number of years working in wholesale before deciding to branch out on her own and begin an internet retail sales business. When her business outgrew her home, Jen rented office space above the storefront that is now Well Grounded. She quickly tired of the lunch options available at the local 7-Eleven store across the street, the only business that sold food in the immediate area. Having worked at a coffee shop during her college years, she suggested to her husband, Kevin O’Neal, that they open a coffee shop to fill the void in that area of El Cerrito. Soon afterwards, the commercial space below Jen’s office became available, and Well Grounded became a reality. Initially, the café primarily sold coffees, teas, pastries, and Bocadillos—sandwiches made on baguettes cut lengthwise. Over the years, the menu has evolved and expanded significantly to include a variety of organic and locally sourced foods and beverages, including beers and wine. Jen’s internet sales business also expanded, and the nearby Jenny K gift shop now offers a variety of unique consumable and utilitarian gifts and greeting cards for all occasions.
The interior of Well Grounded Tea & Coffee Bar is divided into the entry area where orders are placed and food and beverages are prepared, and a separate dining/sitting area that has a long wooden bench along the wall, 3 small round tables, and one 2-person booth. The décor is simple and the ambience is comfortable, casual and friendly. Colorful framed photographs, taken by members of the El Cerrito High School Photography Club, adorn the earth-tone painted walls, and are available for purchase. A wooden table serves as a coffee/tea bar, stocked with honey, sugar, cream, straws, napkins, etc. A large bulletin board hangs in the entry area boasting local postings and advertisements.
Customers waiting to place their orders can salivate over the fresh daily Alameda-based Semifreddi’s handcrafted pastries, which are individually wrapped, and prominently displayed on glass shelves behind the counter. These include such favorites as apple turnovers, blueberry Danish, assorted muffins, croissants, and scones, as well as large, freshly-baked cookies. Fresh assorted bagels from Albany-based Boogie Woogie Bagel Boy, are also stacked in the glass counters to tempt hungry patrons. Newcomers to Well Grounded will likely need at least several minutes to peruse the extensive menu boards suspended behind the counter, listing all of the various coffees, beverages, bagels, specialty sandwiches, and other offerings available at this small café.
Everything at Well Grounded is made to order, including individual cups of coffee. The coffee served here is procured from Lappert’s Coffee, located in Richmond. It is an organic blend of ten different medium and dark roast coffee beans, including Kona coffee beans from Hawaii. (Decaffeinated coffee at Well-Grounded is made from Kona coffee beans only.) They use a Swiss brewing method which extracts the oils from the coffee beans, removing the bitterness and creating a “crema” (lightly colored foam) on top of the cup of each individually brewed cup of coffee. Jen demonstrated the brewing method for me and my guest during our visit, and we found it to be quite interesting. She said that crema on top is considered the hallmark of a good cup of coffee by the Swiss and Italians. I added organic milk/cream to the sample cup of coffee Jen had brewed, and found it to be a very smooth and delicious cup of coffee!
All bagel creations, sandwiches, bocadillos, and salads are prepared when ordered, which is why sometimes service at Well Grounded may seem a bit slow. The smallish area behind the counter fits two to three workers comfortably, and sometimes is occupied by up to five workers on the busiest of days. Most creations include only four or five ingredients, which allows them to be prepared and delivered to customers as quickly as possible. My guest and I visited Well Grounded Tea & Coffee Bar early on a Saturday afternoon. Jen graciously spent time with us, mentioning that Saturday mornings are their busiest time of the week, and so the crew was in recovery mode. In spite of this, the workers still wore smiles and extended friendly greetings to each and every customer. To kick off our tasting experience, Jen offered us a choice of beverages from the menu. My guest noticed a poster advertising a seasonal beverage offering, and decided to try the hot Pumpkin Pie Spiced Latte. This was served in a large round cup, and was topped with a mound of luscious whipped cream and caramel drizzle. I chose an iced Mocha, which also was topped with whipped cream with powdered cocoa sprinkled on top. There were so many food items to choose from that we yielded to Jen’s recommendations for a couple of their best-selling sandwiches that we could sample.
We managed to secure an open table in the seating area, where we enjoyed our beverages while awaiting our sandwiches. Pleasant music played in the background and we observed a customer who was taking advantage of Well Grounded’s free Wi-Fi. My iced mocha had a dark, rich chocolaty flavor, and thankfully was not overly sweet. Across the table, my guest savored her Pumpkin Pie Spiced Latte down to the last drop! Jen later informed us that they make their own Pumpkin Pie additive for the special fall beverages—it is made just like pumpkin pie but without the eggs. The whipped cream used for the coffee drinks is also made in-house by the staff.
Our sandwiches were delivered to our table by one of the workers, wrapped neatly as if “to go.” We unwrapped the first sandwich, a warm Turkey Pesto Sandwich served on Focaccia bread. The sandwich ingredients included deli turkey, spinach, house-made pesto, and alfalfa sprouts. The Focaccia bread was fresh and soft, and although I might have liked a little more turkey and a little less pesto on my sandwich, my guest and I both agreed the flavor was excellent. The second sandwich we sampled was The Humboldt, a vegetarian creation served on a toasted baguette, made with cream cheese, tomato, fresh cucumber slices, and avocado. This cold sandwich was delicious and had a light, fresh flavor. We both thought that we tasted balsamic vinegar on the sandwich giving the sandwich a bit of a “sweet” flavor. We later learned from Jen that the dressing on the sandwich was actually Larrupin sauce, a sweet mustard dill sauce made in Sacramento. This sauce originated at Larrupin Café in Trinidad, CA, located in Humboldt County. Gary and Jen previously lived and attended school in Humboldt county, so a number of their café creations (as well as some of the items in the Jenny K gift shop) are inspired by or are made by Humboldt artists. My guest and I loved the fresh flavor of the Humboldt sandwich—it was a definite hit with us!
Some other noteworthy Well Grounded menu items include the very popular Megga Bagel, made with eggs mixed with spinach, tomatoes, dill gherkin slices, cheese, and Larrupin sauce. Well Grounded didn’t always offer eggs as sandwich ingredients, primarily because the café does not have a full kitchen. However, customers repeatedly requested that eggs be added to their menu, so they now serve microwaved eggs–and the customers love them! The Polynesian sandwich, another of Well Grounded’s specialty sandwiches, features an unlikely ingredient—SPAM! I’m not sure I’ve seen SPAM offered before in any café or restaurant, but you can get it here on the Polynesian, accompanied by cheddar cheese, grilled red onion, and Siracha sauce. Finally, the Caputo, named after a local El Cerrito police officer, is made with Wild Alaskan Salmon Lox, cream cheese, fresh cucumber slices, red onions, capers, and Larrupin sauce. This sounds just unusual and interesting enough that I may want to order it upon a subsequent visit!
For a small café, Well-Grounded Tea and Coffee Bar has a lot to offer—literally! In addition to the specially brewed organic coffee and hot and cold espresso drinks, they offer a variety of Numi Organic Teas, which are locally sourced from Oakland. These teas have no added oils or flavorings and are made from all-natural ingredients, and there is a nice variety of flavors to choose from. Also available are over fifteen flavors of Italian sodas, which tend to be very popular with the local high school students. Seasonal favorites are offered periodically, and when we visited, Well Grounded was offering Hot Apple Cider to celebrate Autumn. Beers and wines sold at Well Grounded are all produced in California, and there is quite a large selection from which to choose. They host Happy Hour every day from 3-6p.m., during which time beers and glasses of wine are offered for $1.00 off the usual price. If you’re a beer connoisseur, you may be interested in co-owner, Kevin’s, Beer Club starting soon!
In addition to the sandwiches, bagels, pastries, and salads, Well Grounded offers popular soups during the winter season. I also noticed that they offer oatmeal, and an assortment of prepared “grab and go” snacks, such as cups of trail mix, goldfish crackers, and animal cookies. As previously mentioned, all pastries, bagels, and breads sold by Well Grounded are delivered fresh daily, and many favorite items sell-out quickly, especially on busy days. Leftover items that no longer meet their freshness standards are delivered to a local shelter, and sometimes two-day old baguettes are offered to customers for free.
Jen and Kevin consider themselves fortunate to have become so successful within the community over the past twelve years. Jen shared that when they started the business, they “learned on their feet.” The community embraced them and have patronized them faithfully over the years. Jen and Kevin, and sometimes even their two children, work at Well Grounded almost daily, assisted by fewer than a dozen faithful staff members who work hard, and know most of their customers by name.
There is something for everyone at Well Grounded Tea and Coffee Bar, and I think you’ll find it to be a warm and inviting venue, in spite of its intimacy. If you’ve not ventured up Stockton Avenue to visit Well Grounded (or Jenny K Gift Shop), add this stop to your list while you’re out shopping this holiday season. It will be a great place to get away from crowded shopping centers and restaurants, and partake of a warm coffee beverage and a fresh, affordable sandwich or snack to boost your energy during the hustle and bustle of the season.
6925 Stockton Avenue, El Cerrito | (510) 528-4709 | Facebook @wellgroundedcafe
Hours: Monday – Friday 6:00 AM – 6:00 PM | Saturday – Sunday 7:00 AM – 4:00 PM