Artisanal East Bay food hall faces live music controversy

Helena V Berbie
The Cannery Kitchen & Tap opened in the Castro Valley Marketplace food hall with a plan to draw patrons with live music, but that plan abruptly changed last month. Credit: Cannery Kitchen & Tap/Facebook

When the duo behind a popular East Bay restaurant decided to open in a new location, the pair started scouting out spots in Oakland that would be appropriate for its well-established burgers-and-live-music vibe. But then, say Cannery Kitchen & Tap co-owners Debbie Pfisterer and Jeff Rosen, they were approached not once, but three times, by Craig Semmelmeyer, the man behind the Castro Valley Marketplace, a newly opened artisanal food hall.

“He understood the power of music, and the power of community and the people it brought,” Rosen said, and Semmelmeyer persuaded the pair to sign a 10-year lease with a plan to book local bands to play as diners enjoyed great meals. But now, Rosen and Pfisterer say, Semmelmeyer has shut the music down, leaving the restaurant without a huge part of its business plan.

The Marketplace is an ambitious food hall that’s been described as a smaller-scale version of San Francisco’s Ferry Building. It opened to great fanfare in July 2020, and the Cannery Kitchen & Tap Room opened that following December, joining well-established food businesses like Oaktown Spice Shop and Barons Quality Meats & Seafood. It was tough going for the restaurant at first, as health orders only allowed takeout service at the time, but the business hung in there, hoping sit-down dining would soon return, and with it, the music program they’d agreed on with Semmelmeyer.

By April 2021 the Cannery was able to start bringing musicians for several days a week on what’s known as “the Paseo,” a large patio in the Marketplace. Things were going well, and business was greatly improving, until a July 30 evening that had hundreds of people – including some higher profile personalities in the local music scene – flocking to the Cannery Kitchen & Tap to hear Sunshine Becker and a full band do a tribute to deceased Grateful Dead guitarist and frontman Jerry Garcia in honor of his Aug. 1 birthday. 

After the successful event, the restaurant’s owners were told to notify all booked musicians that their future gigs were canceled. According to Pfisterer, who says she spoke with Semmelmeyer this week, instead of the thoughtfully-curated musical acts the Cannery expected to book, “He wants background music, those are his words, he doesn’t want performers or people who expect people to pay attention to them.” (Despite repeated attempts to reach him, Semmelmeyer has not responded to Nosh’s requests for comment.)

Debbie Pfisterer and Jeff Rosen say that promises of a live music program lured them to the Castro Valley Marketplace. Credit: Cannery Kitchen & Tap

All of this is especially frustrating, say Pfisterer and Rosen, because Semmelmeyer asked them to open in the marketplace specifically because of their relationship with local musicians. In addition to running the Oakland-based Blue Heron Catering, Pfisterer and Rosen opened the Cannery Café in Hayward in 2014. Located in the Hayward Historical Society building, the pair started programming live music there and it became a popular draw. That restaurant closed in late 2019 as Pfisterer and Rosen began the work to open in their new Castro Valley space.

Both partners have long-established ties to the Bay Area music scene. Pfisterer’s husband is a musician, and she first met Rosen through the region’s music scene. Rosen, a longtime Deadhead, has built up a huge roster of local musicians over the years, as he’s cooked for benefits like KPFA’s Grateful Dead Marathon, the annual Jerry Day, a one-day music festival honoring Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia in San Francisco’s McLaren Park and more. Also, for the previous decade, Rosen and his wife put on music and food events with a huge spread in their Oakland living room; after the food costs, all proceeds went to the musicians (disclosure: I have known Rosen for about a decade, and sometimes helped him as a sous chef for these events).

According to both Rosen and Pfisterer, before opening in Castro Valley, they’d looked at locations in Oakland to bring their unique vision of homestyle cooking paired with live music. Then Semmelmeyer, the founder and principal of Main Street Properties Services (which counts the Castro Valley Marketplace in its portfolio), approached Rosen and Pfisterer on three separate occasions, in an effort to bring them to his new food hall. Rosen and Pfisterer say that their connections and passion for music were always part of the plan; it was, in fact, the reason why Semmelmeyer wanted them in particular. In fact, Rosen says, Semmelmeyer showed such enthusiastic support of their ideas for live music he and Pfisterer signed a decade-long lease, and invested their own money in the Cannery.

“It seems they weren’t really prepared for what we brought,” Rosen said. “In my experience, it was impactful in the best way possible, as we brought live music to people who didn’t have any, and it brought people in droves.”

Betty’s Down Home, a popular menu staple at the Cannery. “For us not to have the music is like suddenly having half our menu missing,” Debbie Pfisterer said. Credit: Cannery Kitchen & Tap

Rosen acknowledges that some Marketplace tenants had concerns about the noise level here or there, and that the doors to the marketplace were occasionally blocked by spectators. Rosen said that they adjusted the hours of the musicians and the noise level when asked, and tried to be accommodating to everyone’s needs.

“We’re in the infancy of a restaurant,” said Rosen. “We’re still growing and learning and finding out what the public wants and what works at the marketplace and what doesn’t. We’re perfectly fine having parameters and working with our co-tenants on what works for them.”

While Nosh reached out to several other tenants, none of them wanted to speak about the issue, except for one: Donna Layburn, owner of Castro Valley Natural Grocery. Via email, Layburn wrote that “The community of independent businesses in the Marketplace all have their hearts, their visions, their passions about food, music and embracing the Castro Valley community at the forefront every moment of every day. We all fully embrace our relationships together. We don’t always get it right and try different things but the tenants work hard at communication.”

Speaking specifically about the event that triggered the shutdown, she wrote, “This event was bigger than expected but was loved by the community. There were minor issues of decibel levels inside but nothing happened that could not have been a learning experience.”

The shutdown has been hard on the Cannery, but it’s also had a major impact on the musicians that had just started to rely on their gigs there as a source of income. Jen Rund had played The Cannery three times since the restaurant began hosting live music, an opportunity that was non-existent during much of the pandemic. “The economic fallout for musicians has been really brutal,” the bassist and vocalist said, so it was huge to have an outdoor place where she could play for a live audience — not to mention a job that paid well.

She described the family and dog-friendly scene as “really sweet,” with friends gathered over burgers or fried chicken sandwiches and beer. It was the kind of gig where little kids were among those dancing, with their parents giving them bills to put in her tip jar. Rund was supposed to play two more gigs there in the coming weeks, including with her band, and was looking forward to debuting some original material, until she was notified that her gigs were suddenly canceled. And she is not alone: some 40 local musicians who were booked through October were all canceled, too.

“For them to cancel two months of shows, and negate all of [the Cannery’s] hard work in putting that calendar together, it’s out of touch with what the community wants and is horrendously inconsiderate,” Rund said. Speaking about her fellow musicians, she said, “I’m furious on behalf of all of us.”

But now management says there will be music, but from another source. On Aug. 6, a Facebook post from the marketplace said: “Castro Valley Marketplace is now scheduling music and community events. Each event will be curated with care to feature local and regional talent that will complement the atmosphere we have worked so hard to create for the community,” inviting those with musical talent to be in touch.

At last count, that post had generated 176 angry comments, mostly from those who live outside of Castro Valley. On top of that, music lovers are flooding the management of the Castro Valley Marketplace with messages and emails, leaving bad reviews of the marketplace on Yelp, and taking to social media demanding that the music return.

Meanwhile, Pfisterer says, the Cannery is stuck in a lengthy lease without the live performance business model its owners had planned on. “I don’t have a ton of confidence we can get [the Cannery’s music program] back, but I’m going to try,” she said. “For us not to have the music is like suddenly having half our menu missing, like [Cannery signature fried chicken sandwich] Betty’s Down Home; not having music is like taking that off the menu. It’s really sad and really attacks who we are and who we were asked to be when we came here.”

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