By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
Bob Keefe, affectionately known all over town as “Berkeley Bob”, is a Renaissance man who wears many hats.
Before retirement sneaked up on Keefe, he was a timber man, scouting the tall pines for Champion Papers, which later became International Paper Company. He loved being in the woods, and is a wealth of information about the environment.
Even back before that, he says he was a hippie, living in sunny California and being carefree. Because of those roots, he named his coffee house “Berkeley Bob’s”. He and his wife, Jerri, and their daughter, Erin, have worked hard to make it one of Cullman’s destination places for people who enjoy a great cup of coffee — and if the time is right — some exceptional music. That’s another thing about Bob; he’s all about some good bluegrass or folk music. Or any kind of music that doesn’t cause you to bang your head against a wall.
Sometimes musicians will just appear out of nowhere and play for free outside the coffee shop. Other times they are scheduled to perform. What’s amazing about that is the fact that Bob gets these entertainers to play for free, well, for tips.
In this year's last freak snowstorm, an entertainer by the name of Panama Red (aka Danny Finley) came all the way from Nashville, braving the freezing weather, treacherous roads and keeping an eye on the traffic backed up in the opposite lane from Lacon to past Cullman. He did it because he thinks that much of Bob Keefe.
Many of them come because this is what Bob bills as a “listening” room, meaning that they get the full attention of the audience. “This isn’t a bar,” he said, waving his hand to include the main room of the coffee shop. “This is a place where people actually listen to the words and the music. Musicians appreciate that.”
Poets, storytellers and other entertainers also show up at Berkeley Bob’s on a regular basis. You just never know who might show up there. That spontaneity makes it more fun. For instance, Bob hosts a monthly North Alabama songwriters showcase, usually featuring three songwriters who sing in the round.
Upcoming entertainers for April and May include Steve Norris on April 27, and on May 4, The Novadais (Celtic Folk singers), who open for Post War (Americana).
Berkeley Bob’s has become a nice, relaxing hangout for those who want a quiet place to enjoy breakfast and coffee on a lazy Saturday morning. With its eclectic mix of ’60s and ’70s “hippie” era décor and Jerri’s homebaked pastries and great organic, shade-grown coffees and teas, this is a great way to start any day of the week.
“Growing coffee and tea plants in the understory shade of the canopy of a rainforest keeps the leaves of the coffee and tea plants from scorching in the hot sun. The canopy overhead lets in just the right amount of sunlight, plus it keeps people from clear-cutting those areas, which helps to preserve the rainforest,” Bob explained.
He and Gerri promote the use of natural, whole grain foods and uses them whenever possible in their pastries, breads and muffins. Bob also makes a mean red beans and rice dish, among other wholesome dishes.
Bob’s motto is “Peace, Love and Coffee”. Folks gather here for the laid-back ambiance, good company, interesting conversation, great coffee, wholesome food, and live entertainment. From bikers to bankers, every one loves Berkeley Bob’s. “We’ve found our niche here,” says Bob, philosophically. “Cullman needed a place like this.”
All that being said, it’s no wonder that Berkeley Bob’s was named the top coffee house in Alabama last year by Alabama magazine. Readers voted in the magazine’s “Best of Bama” poll, a compilation of the state’s top restaurants, hotels, bars and specialty shops.
Bob says that it was a nice surprise. But then, he has always appreciated that this has morphed into a really special place.
This year Berkeley Bob’s celebrated its tenth anniversary. People came to be a part of the festivities because they love the Keefes and because they love this place. It’s not something you can put your finger on exactly. No one would ever call this an upscale coffee emporium, but it has its own special vibe that defies description. Could be that it’s the tie-dyed table clothes, or the comfortable shabby chic sofas where folks drift over to wi-fi or to join in an animated conversation. Some ladies come here in the mornings to knit, or to meet for lunch, sometimes clubs use the back room for monthly meetings, or reporters for interviews. It’s just the kind of place where you might run into anybody — anytime. “There was even a wedding here once,” Bob laughed.
And did we mention the great coffee, lattes and frappuccinos? Well, people go there for those, too!
Bob Keefe is definitely one of Cullman’s most colorful characters. Berkeley Bob's is definitely one of Cullman's most interesting places.
May 6 Open Mic Night
May 10 Monthly Songwriters Showcase
May 11 Slip Jig
May 17 Theology on Tap
May 18 Vulcan Eejits (Celtic folk artists)
May 20 Open Mic Night
May 24 Riverboat John
May 25 Kenneth Smith