Ed Van Buskirk: Owner of Berkeley’s natural foods restaurant Arbor Cafe

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Photo by Fotolia/Marco Mayer
Ed Van Buskirk's restaurant Arbor Cafe serves food in its most wholesome form without any preservatives or processing.

This issue’s Plowboy interview originally appeared in Black Bardt, an excellent alternative life publication put together by Theodore Merrill.  

What sort of organization is this?  

The Arbor?

Yes — the Arbor Cafe.  

Well — it’s owned practically by two people, myself and another guy and we own it and set it up. When we first started out, we needed help but we didn’t have the money to pay anybody and so people began to work here for meals and stuff — or people that just wanted to work here, wanted to get experience with natural foods, came and started working. Some people would stay only a couple of days or a week, or something like that and other people would stay nine months or a year. It’s still the same kind of thing. It’s like the two of us own it and, like, whatever money comes out of it is, like, we pay taxes on it and it’s our money. Some of the people who work here now live in the house and work, getting room and board and some money for working a certain number of hours a day. Other people live outside and work here, maybe four or five hours a day, and they get rent and some money for that. So it’s a business, as I was saying, but it’s also got a communal aspect to it. People are sharing the responsibilities — you know — learning how to do all the different things in the cafe and just getting experience doing it.

What got you into it?  

Well — I was looking to buy a natural foods retail store or to start one, but I didn’t really have the money I thought was necessary to do it. A friend of mine, who opened this and started it, wanted to sell it, so I bought it for a very reasonable price. He just wanted to see it continue on the way he had started it, and he wanted to get his money out of it.

What sort of things are necessary to start a store. I mean, what sort of legal hassles and things like that?  

Well, essentially, you have to have a business permit for whatever city or county you’re in.

Is it very hard to get a permit?  

No — pay money, and you get a business permit. If you’re going to be selling stuff to the public, you have to get a bond from the State Board of Equalization and the State Tax Board. You just give them some money and they hold it. You have to have a place that’s suitable for the health department and suitable for all the fire inspections and health inspections. Sometimes it’s easy; sometimes it’s hard. And, like, you just have to have enough money to begin — you know — to get a little stock of food and get some things you need to cook with; however you’re going to do it. But you can start pretty small, because there’s money coming in right away (some at least); and just an idea is all you need (and a little money to back it up with), whatever you have.

What’s the idea behind natural cookery? What kind of philosophy do you have?  

Well — there’s many different people that have different philosophies about natural foods. People have written books and have all sorts of nutritional theories. One for me is as good as another. It’s like, for each person to find his own way. So what we try to do here (we’re the only place in Berkeley — I can’t really understand why — but we are), is just offering as much as possible: food that’s free from processing and grown organically and free from preservatives and chemicals and just good natural food that has the taste of the way food tastes, and is prepared, usually, pretty simply. That’s the way I see it. It’s just a business that goes on but we try to keep this going where people can come here and eat natural grown foods that aren’t devitalized. They haven’t been processed and all this kind of stuff, but are as close as possible to nature’s foods.

What are some examples of, like, natural foods that would make a good, cheap meal?  

Well — people like rice. Rice is a good staple food — brown rice.

That’s kinda the usual fall back staple?  

Yes, rice or any kinds of grains are cheap. There’s hundreds of things with grains. There’s flour and rice and millet and things like that you can make: bread and pancakes and — everything. You know.

Do you know very much about growing food?  

Just what experience I’ve had with organic gardening.

What are some of the principles of it? — Of organic gardening. 

Well — it’s like, first of all prepare the soil to get a good rich soil using a compost, which is made out of organic ingredients. Garbage, waste that you would normally throw away, you make a compost pile of it. You can put anything in there: orange peels — you know — anything, old rotted stuff. Just take all your food garbage and put it in a heap and build a little wooden frame around it or something. Water it every once in a while. And you can put leaves in there, scrape up leaves, anything that is part of the natural process.

How long does it take the compost pile to work?  

You can just take the garbage and sort of put it on the ground to start out. We have a garden here, and we just started taking out garbage from the Arbor and putting it on the ground and kinda turning it under and watering it for about a week. It’s better if its completely decomposed. It becomes sort of a gooey mess. You mix this with the soil. Then there’s, like, organic leaf molds and fertilizers that are free from chemicals or anything like that. You plant, and it’s just natural from there. You observe that it’s good to do it astrologically — you plant during the fertile time of the month, and you weed and stuff like that during the barren times.

What phase is that?  

I’m not too sure about that. I usually just look it up. I can’t really rap about that off the top of my head. That information is available, like, in the Farmer’s Almanac and stuff like that — you know. It’s around; it can be had; and it works. It’s right. The thing people have most trouble with in organic gardening is pests and things like that. There’s hundreds of poisons, chemical sprays and stuff on the market to get rid of pests; and they’ll kill the pests, but they’ll also screw up your food. There are natural sprays and stuff that you can just make out of onions and all kinds of different things.

I’ve talked with some people and they say that eating organic foods gives your body a different feeling after a while.  

Oh very definitely. Sure. It’s natural foods there. They come from nature. The thing is, for so long they’ve been processing foods — like a farmer will grow something, and it’ll have to go through fifteen peoples’ hands before it hits the consumer. Everyone’s got to get in there and make their dollar off of it. In order to do this, there’s all these refrigeration techniques and preservation techniques and things they’ve developed that don’t have anything to do with the nutritional value of the food. They just have to do with someone making money off of this whole process. In places where the supermarkets are, usually it’s very bad. It’s been through all the processes. They put ridiculous chemicals and stuff in the food. One thing is for people just to go into supermarkets and read the labels. Like I said before, there’s lots of different philosophies, if one chooses to get into it in that way and follow any one kind of diet, or anything like that. We try to satisfy as much as we can all of these things at the Arbor — just to have the foods there and going over the counter, and there’s no special thing. We feel, like, we just like to have a place where Meher Baba’s pictures and things are available, and where people can find out about Meher Baba, and also to keep this thing which is sorely needed in most places: fresh, untampered with food for people to eat, at pretty cheap prices — as cheap as we can get. I mean, there’s a lot of people walking around with no money, and they get some money, and they go out and get a coke and stuff like that.

Do you think, like, if someone wanted to set up another one in Berkeley that there’d be a big enough market for it?  


How big a market is there, do you think?  

In the year or two that I’ve owned the Arbor, our business has increased three times, and the health food stores around here, the same thing. It’s just all of a sudden going vboom, man. There’s more and more new people coming into the Arbor. We’ve never advertised anywhere. It’s just grown sort of organically on its own. It’s just people talking one to another. That was the way that I wanted it: was, not to make an advertising thing out of it, but just the idea that if you continue to, every day — you know — prepare good food and serve good food, it will grow on its own. We’re getting too swamped now. Sometimes we don’t have the time to do a lot of things that we’d like to do. With so many people coming in, it gets so crowded sometimes. We either need a bigger place, or, if someone has the same idea to open a place in Berkeley, we wouldn’t consider them competition at all. They’d be welcomed — it’s needed you know. While this is going on, the plastic food industry is getting more plastic and more plastic. Just the idea that people are digging this themselves, and talking with other people. It’s spreading, you know. It’s like, people are concerned with purifying their body and their mind, and those are two things that go one with the other. Purification of the body is a necessary part of getting your mind clear, and people are jumping at it. They want to find out. It’s just not spread widely enough. You don’t read about it in the newspaper or the magazine. But it will come. There’s more and more people getting into it. I find it’s a really good business, man, I mean ninety-nine percent of the people I meet are really nice people — you know — it’s a good business to be in. Ten years ago (and there still are some), the health food stores were kind of a racket. They sold pills and real high priced things, and some of the stuff sold was not that good. The health food always had a real high price, and people would go for it and get sucked into something that wasn’t really helping them anyhow.

Now it’s getting — there’s more and more people just wanting to do without the profit motive or anything like that, wanting to make things happen. There’s people going out on farms and communes and trying to grow stuff, and now the problem is getting the food to the people.

Recommended Books on Natural Foods 

The Natural Foods Cookbook by Beatrice Trum Hunter.

Zen Macrobiotic Cooking by Michel Abehsera.