A decade ago, Erin Wade was living an unhappy existence as a corporate labor and employment lawyer in San Francisco. Today, she’s the force behind Homeroom, a perennially packed mac and cheese restaurant in Oakland that’s looking ahead to its 10-year anniversary. Little did she know that what began as a spontaneous idea would wind up making a lasting mark in the Oakland restaurant community.
“One night, I was having a really crappy day and really craving mac and cheese, I realized there was no restaurant to go to for it,” she recalled. “So I pulled out my dad’s recipe—I had this amazing family recipe for mac and cheese—and started cooking it. I had this thought: That there should be a mac and cheese restaurant, and I should be the person to open it.”
With little more than a recipe, Wade and a co-founder raised money on Kickstarter and grew a fanatical community following. In 2011, they opened the doors to a restaurant with a menu centered around their love for one dish: macaroni and cheese. They named it Homeroom, a nostalgic nod to both the most beloved class in school as well as a room in one’s home.
Wade is the first to admit that Homeroom’s location, at 40th Street on the edge of Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, wasn’t particularly by design: “Honestly, we did not have enough money to open a restaurant—and it was the cheapest.”
But as it turns out, the restaurant and the neighborhood shared more than a few things in common. Both came from humble beginnings, and both entered the pinnacle of cool at the same time. Both have become part of the undeniable charm of Oakland, and both have had to evolve in different ways over the past 10 years. In many ways, the restaurant and its surroundings have fed into the evolution of one another.
We spoke to Wade about Homeroom’s earliest days, some of her most devoted customers, and the ways in which the restaurant and the neighborhood have evolved. Keep reading to learn more—including her personal commentary on the mac and cheese menu.
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Our buildout took a long time, so while that was happening, we wanted to start raising awareness for what Homeroom was—and also, frankly, to try to make some kind of money. So we were doing all these pop up events: We appeared at the very first Eat Real Festival and sold our mac and cheese. We did this thing called the SF Underground Market...which I think has since been shut down by the health department. People would basically cook food at home and bring it in and sell it at this event. And so it was all these budding young brands trying stuff out, which was really fun, you know? We just developed this cult following.
Then we did another market. Samin Nosrat—the cookbook author who has the Netflix special—she was running Pop-Up General Store, a market for small producers, and hand-picked everyone. We did a Thanksgiving pop-up with her, and Alice Waters bought our mac and cheese there.
There are two moments. The day we opened, there was just really incredible enthusiasm. The public was incredibly enthusiastic—we had lines out the door from our first day. I feel very fortunate for how much like the community really embraced Homeroom and was super excited about it. And the day that we held our first job interviews, we had 300 people lined up to work at Homeroom. That was incredible. Now that it's almost 10 years later, and we're still going really strong—I mean, I wake up every day and feel like we’ve made it because statistically, only one in 10 restaurants make it through their first year, and only one in 100 make it past five. Those are the actual numbers.
At the time, the space had been vacant for three years. There weren’t even street lights on the street, because no one wanted to walk here at night. There was literally nothing open at night in a half mile in either direction. It was definitely a risky gamble in terms of location. It’s crazy to imagine now! We’re three blocks from a BART station and lots of cool stuff. The neighborhood has really been one of our greatest sources of strength. I’m so grateful to the neighborhood we’re in. And it’s been cool to see more businesses flock here and succeed.
Our menu has changed over the years. We're always looking at what people are loving and buying a lot of and then what is not selling as well. We want to keep it fresh and new, so we seasonally change the menu and change permanent items on the menu all the time.
Oakland has changed a lot in the past decade. There’s good and bad, as with any kind of change. I'm excited that on 40th Street there are now more businesses. We had a lot of vacant storefronts. It’s cool now that those storefronts have businesses in them, and that’s really exciting. That’s a net gain. But then there's some stuff that’s hard. Oakland’s become a really expensive place to live, and most of the people that work with us can't afford to live here anymore. That's really sad and really hard, because we’re a community-focused business. The folks who work in restaurants are mainly people who are either supporting families or budding artists. You can tell how your city's doing by who's working in restaurants and who can afford to live there. Can someone still have a family and work in a restaurant? Can someone be pursuing acting or art or music on the side and be doing this and still afford to live here? The answer currently is no. And that changes the richness that Oakland has.
We’re an open book company, so we pay our staff to learn about our corporate finances and teach financial literacy. We have a staff-directed program called Culture Club where we spend money to meet our mission, which is to be the best part of people's day. They’ll spend money to go to an A’s game, movie nights, and all sorts of things that bring the staff together. We are really conscious about building a company that looks like Oakland, which is one of the most diverse cities in America. Our leadership team is 95 percent women and people of color, and we promote almost exclusively from within. The average tenure in the restaurant industry is 60 to 90 days, but for us, it’s two and a half years. I think that says more than anything.
Every Wednesday since we’ve opened, which has been a long time, there’s been this woman, Lisa, and her son, Toby, who come in for dinner. It’s their mother-son dinner date and just incredibly sweet. Toby is this sort of budding cook; he’ll experiment with various things he makes and has brought them in for us to try. I think Toby starts college this year, so this will be his last year of doing this. But it’s really special to be part of someone's life in that way and to watch their kid grow up.
You will see more Homeroom in the Bay Area, for sure. But that’s all I can tell you.
Below is a highlight reel of Erin’s thoughts on some of the restaurant’s menu items.
“This is incredibly boring, one of my favorites is the Classic Mac. It’s so simple and so people are always a little disappointed in that answer. But if you’re like me, you grew up eating Kraft, and this is a yellow cheddar mac, but it is 10,000 times more delicious than that mac and cheese you grew up with. It just holds a special key to my heart, you know? I also love adding peas, because they add a pop, a fun texture.”
“Another one of my favorites is the Maximus, our Greek one, which has spinach, feta, and artichoke hearts. It tastes like spanakopita, which I love. And that one’s actually probably coming off the menu soon, so if you want it, go eat that one now!”
The Mexican Chorizo
“If I’m having a spicy mac, I love to amp it up with something else that’s spicy. The Mexican mac is spicy, so I'll add spicy roasted cauliflower to that. That is super delicious.”
“This is our best seller, and it’s been on the menu since our first year. The Gilroy Garlic has sweeter notes, so it is really delicious with caramelized onions as an add-in.”
“When we would do mac and cheese at pop-ups and festivals, one of them was called Trailer Mac. We never sold enough of it on the menu to keep it in a permanent, long-term slot, but the die hard fans can still get it. We bring it back from time to time as a special, but you can basically sort of create it by adding in hot dogs and add potato chips on top.”