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Changes at Phipps' Cafe

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One of the brightest spots of a day at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, in Oakland's Schenley Park, is no more, with no official word on its replacement.

For almost four years, Café Phipps had been run by local restaurant group Big Burrito. The company's venues run the gamut from the student-budget, taco-and-margarita haunt Mad Mex to the chic and spendy Casbah; it has also been a regional leader in sourcing local ingredients for all its restaurants.

The café at Phipps was located in the much-ballyhooed new green welcome center, and patrons could grab a bite without paying admission to Phipps. Its vegetarian-friendly menu featured plenty of seasonal local produce in wraps, salads, sandwiches and pizza. The fare was exciting enough to entice cultured orchid-peeping aesthetes, and familiar enough to placate yowling stroller-weary kids.

In keeping with Phipps' eco-mission, most of the cutlery was compostable and biodegradable, and recycling containers were clearly marked and simple to use.

But Big Burrito's contract has expired, and the café's immediate future is hazy. Phipps communications director Mike Sexauer confirms that Big Burrito will no longer be running the café, but he won't elaborate further. "There is going to be a change, but unfortunately we don't have all the contracts we need in place," he says. "So, it would be premature to give you any information at this time. We went through an extensive RFP [request for proposal] and Big [Burrito] was part of that process."

"It's a drag," says Bill Fuller, Big Burrito's executive chef. "We really enjoyed doing that café."

The restaurant group, Fuller says, will stay on as a preferred caterer for events at Phipps, which he's happy about. But Fuller adds he's unsure why Big Burrito isn't considered a good fit any more.

"We feel that our personalities and missions are similar, and mesh well," Fuller says of the two companies. "We're disappointed we don't get to continue. I'm kind of surprised."

Fuller says that café employees were very loyal, and he expects them to be quite gloomy, in light of what he calls their nearly religious devotion to the café. But, "We're going to try to absorb them back into Big Burrito," he adds.

But, despite his disappointment, Fuller remains phlegmatic. "There's not really any dish to it," he says. "They chose someone else. It was a cool little thing. We're going to be sorry to lose it."

For now, hungry visitors to Phipps and Schenley Park can only await a revamped café.

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