By Patrick Kruger
Where Everybody Knows Your Face
Salah Benhamna and Hocine Tamoud at K’s Coffee House. Photo Credit: Patrick Kruger
At K’s Coffee House, the cozy, street-level cafe next to campus, everybody may not know your name, but chances are they’ll recognize your face.
“I am not so good with names,” says Hocine Tamoud, who, alongside Salah Benhamna and the rest of the K’s team, works to keep BCC well-fed and caffeinated. “It is the faces I remember—the people who stop in just to say ‘hi’ and don’t even buy anything.”
Of course, most people do buy something, and many of those people come from BCC. Tamoud and Benhamna estimate that 70-80% of their business comes from BCC, Berkeley High School and City of Berkeley employees. Operating since July of 2008, K’s has grown up alongside BCC. Tamoud recalls many conversations with students and faculty. He has a theory as to why he sees the same faces again and again.
“First is convenience. We are right next door,” says Tamoud, who tries not to overanalyze the obvious. “But if the students go to Starbucks or some other place, they stand in line. It takes too long. Here, we always try to be fast—take the order, make the drink, make the food. If you compare, I think our prices are better, too. Plus, we are right next door.”
Students stop by K’s before class, after class, or during a break for different reasons. With free Wi-Fi and ample table space, many come to study or browse the internet. Others sample the extensive list of beverages and baked goods. Most, however, are after a quick bite to eat and a cup of joe.
“I don’t know how much coffee we sell,” says Tamoud. “A lot. But people have also been asking for ready-made sandwiches and salads, that you could just grab and go. Now, we make the sandwich when you order, but we may add something like that.”
One recent addition to the K’s menu has had people talking.
“These piroshkis—meat, dumpling type-sandwiches—people keep asking, “What is this word?” and “Where does it come from?” says Tamoud. “I don’t know myself. I’m going to look that up when I get home tonight, actually.”
When asked about negative interactions at K’s, both Tamoud and Benhamna struggle to recall anything of note. Finally, Benhamna mentions a minor annoyance and then launches into a story about cheese.
“Nothing too bad, really, sometimes people come in and ask for small things for free, utensils and things. People have brought cups in and filled them with the milk we have out, that is supposed to be for coffee,” says Benhamna. “One time, a woman asked for a sandwich with cheese to be baked. I tried to explain that the melted cheese would mix with the other ingredients and she wouldn’t be able to taste it, but she insisted. After taking a bite of the baked sandwich, she walked back up to the counter and said, “There’s no cheese on this.”
“What did you say to her?” Tamoud asks.
“Nothing,” says Benhamna. “I just handed her a slice.”
Having grown up in Algeria, Tamoud and Benhamna both speak four languages: French, English, Arabic, and Berber. They immigrated to the U.S. ten and six years ago, respectively, and reflected upon the transition.
“It was tough. My parents did not want me to go,” says Tamoud. “But at the end of the day it was my decision. I have five brothers, all back in Algeria, and it was very hard to be alone here at first. But things change, things get better. I still talk to my family back home once or twice a week.”
Benhamna discussed the difficulty of applying for jobs with a college degree from another country.
“Coming to the U.S., many of us already have a bachelor’s or even master’s degree,” says Benhamna. “It is difficult to find work in our field, whether it’s technology or engineering, they want to see that you graduated from an American university. But you have the degree, and you can do the work. To go back to school at that point is hard, but I felt that I had to, and I actually just finished studying aviation maintenance technology at the College of Alameda.”
When asked about advice for BCC students, Tamoud turns philosophical.
“The best school for anyone is experience,” says Tamoud. “Especially for young people: do it now. It will be hard, but it would be harder later on, with a job and maybe a family.”
“There is no secret,” says Benhamna. “Study hard. And drink plenty of K’s coffee.”