Bethany Clough

Downtown restaurant moving north, seeking nighttime streets that are ‘safe, well-lit’

Take a tour of Tree of Life cafe, which celebrates all that is Fresno

Tree of Life cafe and bakery in downtown Fresno takes locally produced food for many of its dishes, but also instills local flavor in the art on its walls and the furnishings around the dining room.
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Tree of Life cafe and bakery in downtown Fresno takes locally produced food for many of its dishes, but also instills local flavor in the art on its walls and the furnishings around the dining room.

Tree of Life, a Kern Street restaurant that’s been an advocate for downtown revitalization, is moving north.

The restaurant will move into the former Waffle Shop Country Cooking space near Blackstone and Herndon avenues, next to the Imperial Garden Chinese restaurant. It’s not clear when its last day will be, but the owner is hoping to hold a grand opening in the new space Dec. 1.

Tree of Life opened 2.5 years ago at 2139 Kern St., at the corner of L St. It was a little different for downtown, a farm-to-table, cafeteria-style restaurant using local ingredients and employing workers who have completed drug or alcohol rehab programs.

Though Tree of Life has plenty of customers downtown, owner Carolyn Ocheltree said she often hears from people who say they just can’t seem to make it to downtown.

“There’s so many people who say, ‘Oh I love what you do, we love your foods, we love your mission, but we just never get downtown,’” she said.

More specifically, Ocheltree said in a news release that customers want parking that is close to the restaurant and free. Most of the parking near Tree of Life is metered.

The release continues: “They want safe, well-lit, people-filled streets at night, with a variety of activities, from dining to shopping to entertainment options. These are not things that we, alone, can change. So, for the time being, we are moving to an area where plentiful free parking, well-lit areas and large groups of people exist.”

Tree of Life is typically open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. For eight months, the restaurant tried staying open from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, and from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays. Its also held many events designed to attract people to downtown, from cooking classes to fundraisers.

“It’s really dark. Even though Kern Street is a pretty street, it’s really dark at night,” Ocheltree said. “It’s not like the Tower District where there’s lights strung across the street and every business is lit up.”

Ocheltree tried to do something about that situation, talking with members of the mayor’s staff, planning department, the Downtown Fresno Partnership and the Fresno Grizzlies. She said they met with “the nicest and most gracious people,” but in order to grow and be open for dinner, they need to move.

Downtown Fresno Partnership CEO and president Jimmy Cerracchio said his organization is working on a way to improve lighting on Kern Street.

“When I walk there I actually feel pretty safe,” he said. “I think it is well lit, but I think it could be better.”

He noted that customers pay for parking at every restaurant, it’s just often wrapped into the price of the restaurant’s rent.

Downtown needs clusters of businesses like restaurants to help draw people from outside during the evenings, he said. It’s starting to happen with restaurants like The Chicken Shack and Toshiko Japanese Cuisine, along with Los Panchos and HoP PK.

“What we have to do a better job on downtown is really building up the demand for people to be down there,” he said.

City of Fresno spokesman Mark Standriff said Ocheltree has been a longtime supporter of downtown and he’s glad the restaurant is staying in Fresno.

“We’re seeing a lot of good things happening in downtown, and businesses open and close on a regular basis,” he said. “We’re just going to continue to keep pressing forward.”

Ocheltree said she could see Tree of Life being a part of downtown in some way in the future, maybe as a kiosk or another restaurant, she said.

The restaurant has clearly been an active part of downtown, doing private catering for many downtown organizations and staying open for theatergoers headed to Saroyan Theatre. Its statement notes the restaurant has fed fans of the Grizzlies and the Fresno Foxes Football Club, and couples fresh from their civil marriage ceremonies across the street.

Tree of Life will hold a customer appreciation day starting at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 23 with chili and cornbread.

The new location will bring some changes, including being open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and not open for breakfast. The new restaurant is about the same size, though its kitchen is bigger and it has its own enclosed patio. The menu will change slightly and they will hire a few additional employees.

Although a grand opening in the new location is planned for Dec. 1, Ocheltree hopes to be up and running before then.

Bethany Clough: 559-441-6431, @BethanyClough
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