I love hearing stories of how people meet their partners, both romantic and professional. Whether forged through family connections, the stresses of work or good old serendipity, these stories never get old.
Like the one behind Homeroom, Oakland’s temple of macaroni and cheese. Barely into her second year in the Bay Area, food blogger and marketer Allison Arevalo shares a table in a crowded cafe with Erin Wade, an attorney. They strike up a conversation about Oakland, the Bay Area and New York (where Allison is from), discover a mutual passion for food, exchange numbers, and go on their way, meeting up occasionally. Nine months later, Erin calls Allison with a proposition – she has had enough of her attorney life and wondered if Allison would be interested in opening a restaurant together.
“People thought that our young friendship would be a weakness in the partnership, but it’s actually been a strength because we don’t have a big friendship to protect so this freed us to be really open and honest with each other on major decisions,” said Erin.
Agreeing, Allison said, “You’re really taking a chance whenever you go into business with someone. You never really know how it’s going to turn out, whether you’ve known them for a long time or not.”
Having a business partner who shares your lifelong dream of opening a restaurant certainly helps. Erin flirted with the restaurant world as a pastry cook in New York City for two years before trading chef’s whites for corporate suits while Allison moved out to the Bay Area with this goal in mind.
After over a year of solid hard work, dealing with contractors, fussy neighbors, and fending off a lawsuit from McDonald’s over their initial name, “Little Mac”, Homeroom opened its doors this past February to great fanfare and have been churning out the macs as fast as they can, selling about 250 to 300 macs a day, each one featuring artisanal cheeses from around the country.
Said Erin, “We wanted to do something that was easy and popular, so we chose to focus on mac and cheese because it’s nostalgic and also because we both love cheese. As a product, it’s something easily replicable and appealing for a broad audience.”
The nostalgia is apparent in the decor. From the paper planes hanging from the ceiling and high school photos on the bathroom wall to the recycled wood tables and mason drinking jars, the restaurant’s interior successfully balances vintage charm with a modern sensibility. With the sheer hard work that went into furnishing the restaurant (the tables, banquettes and chairs were either handmade or refurbished), the space stands as a tribute to the DIY spirit, and the sense of satisfaction that comes from crafting something with your own hands.
The theme of nostalgia carries over into their menu too.
“So many people love mac and cheese but no one’s doing anything fun with it,” said Allison. “I mean, there’s S’Mac in New York City, but it’s a totally different concept from Homeroom. We’re more than just a mac and cheese shop; we also carry treats like homemade oreos and peanut butter pie, veggie sides, and a selection of local craft beers and wine.”
In a step towards diversifying the menu, Homeroom started serving up pot pies on Wednesdays as well as a brunch menu on the weekends, in addition to their selection of nine mac and cheese variations.
“We entertained the idea of running a food truck business initially, but it didn’t make financial sense for us,” shared Erin. “We’re interested in building a community around our food business, and a restaurant would be a better platform to achieve that goal. A lot of what we find meaningful and fulfilling now, like building relationships with our customers, wouldn’t be possible without Homeroom.”
Greenleaf supplies most of the restaurant’s ingredients. A brief stint with local independent food suppliers revealed the importance of working with suppliers that had the scale, flexibility and capacity to meet a restaurant’s needs, like short turnarounds for deliveries, mid-week orders, and the like.
Said Erin, “We’re both really big into the local food movement and wanted Homeroom to reflect that, but we’ve found that most of our customers don’t seem to be bothered about where their food comes from. Since we’ve opened, I’ve only fielded two questions about the sources of our ingredients. The majority seemed to be more concerned with price and taste.”
All of Homeroom’s recipes are developed in-house, with Erin taking the lead for desserts. The quest for the “perfect” mac and cheese saw the pair and their husbands sampling many variations of mac and cheese than they could have anticipated.
“We spent the longest time developing the recipe for our classic mac and cheese, to get just the right amount of creaminess without compromising flavor,” said Allison. “Creaminess comes from the roux base, but you can’t use too much of it as it dilutes the flavor. We eventually found a winning combination by using really strong-aged cheddar.”
For those of you interested in replicating Homeroom’s macs in your own kitchen, the restaurant features cheddar from California-based Rumiano Cheese Company for their Classic Mac and two-year aged cheddar from Grafton Village Cheese for their Vermont White Cheddar Mac.
Special diets are not neglected in the Homeroom menu either. Their gluten-free mac features brown rice pasta with a tapioca flour roux while the vegan mac (which I’ve heard rave reviews of) employs nutritional yeast, spices, tofu and soy milk.
My personal favorite? It’s a tie between their Bacon, Egg & Cheese mac (cheddar and bacon topped with a fried egg, pictured above) and The Exchange Student (Pecorino Romano and cracked black pepper).
Six months since Homeroom’s opening and the friendship between the two owners is as strong as ever. A joint day off a few months ago was spent appreciating oysters and California’s sunny weather together, just like what good friends do.
“It’s a lot of work and effort that goes into opening and running a restaurant, but I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else,” said Allison. “There’s always something new everyday – a new problem to solve, a new connection to be made, it’s never boring.”
Erin added, “I don’t know how people do it (running a restaurant) solo. It’s a lot of work, even for the both of us. But coming in everyday, and seeing this restaurant, this place, that we built from scratch and how it’s become so much bigger than we could have ever imagined, makes it all worthwhile. I’m looking forward to spending more time on developing recipes as the restaurant matures and needs less of our oversight.”
400, 40th Street, Oakland CA Sundays to Thursdays, 11am-9pm
Fridays and Saturdays, 11am-10pm