If you’ve lived in Emeryville’s Park Avenue District for any significant amount of time, you likely know Ben Yee. Ben lives in the district’s only remaining single-family home kitty-corner to Emeryville Civic Center.
Ben also owns the commercial building directly across from his home leased to Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe. Ben’s family ran Eugene’s Ranch House at the space for 36 years and were fixtures in the community.
We sat down with Ben who reflected on his over 50 years in Emeryville, his family’s legacy and the incredible work ethic of his Chinese-American mother and immigrant father who helped nourish the local workforce and residents of the era.
Ben’s father Eugene Yee was was born in 1906 in southern China and immigrated to the U.S. in 1922. “He was what they call a ‘paper son’ ” Ben explained. A term for immigrating to the U.S. without a biological parent with bogus paperwork.
Eugene first landed in Vancouver and after recovering from about a month of sea-sickness, took the train to Boston where his “paper father” lived. He first lived in Framingham, Massachusetts where he went to school to learn english.
Because of the discrimination of the era, he was relegated to kitchen work where he would make between a quarter and a dollar a day. He next moved to Chicago where he received trade school degrees in electrical engineering and airplane repair. “He unfortunately couldn’t get a job in either of the fields because of the discrimination of the time,” Ben lamented.
“My mom would wear a badge identifying herself as Chinese so she wouldn’t get spit on.”
Now in his early 30’s, Eugene continued his migration west with stops in Winnemucca, NV and Prescott, AZ working in restaurants along the way. Fleeing the unbearable heat, he eventually settled in San Francisco where opened up his first restaurant “Gene’s Cafe” on Polk street. It was here where he met and fell in love with Ben’s mother Ruby Fong, a native of San Francisco, who worked there as a waitress.
Eugene and Ruby married and settled together in East Oakland where they began their family. Eugene attempted a career transition by acquiring a nursery where they grew long-stem roses. Because of World War II and the internment of Japanese citizens, opportunity opened up in the Japanese-dominated cut-flower industry (the short documentary “Blossoms and Thorns” details this injustice). “My mom would wear a badge identifying herself as Chinese so she wouldn’t get spit on.”
The Yee’s struggled during this period with Ruby resorting to selling flower arrangements out of her car to bars and restaurants along East 14th Street (now International Boulevard). “It was a real hand-to-mouth period for our family. She would tell me ‘every dollar she made represented four quarts of milk for my kids.’ ”
Eugene got out of the cut-flower business after ten years and went back to the restaurant industry where he knew he could earn a steady paycheck.
Eugene & Ruby moved their family of now seven to Alameda (three girls and two boys of which Ben is the fourth child). “It was a converted water tower behind a property on Pacific Avenue that was expanded to three bedrooms. We lived there until 1961 then moved back to Oakland briefly before settling back in Alameda,” Ben explained. The family then ran the restaurant and banquet space at the Hotel Alameda for the next three years.
“This is where my mom really began to blossom,” Ben explained. Ruby joined “Toastmistresses” (Toastmasters for women at the time) where she refined her public speaking ability. “She could hold everyone in the room in palm of her hand with her speeches. She really had the gift of gab.” Ruby went on to have a successful career of her own in insurance and real estate.
The work at Hotel Alameda was grueling for Eugene. “He worked seven days a week, breakfast, lunch and dinner. He did all the baking, he butchered all the meats, cooked all the entrees… one day he just collapsed from exhaustion. They thought he had a heart attack.”
Next Chapter: The Ranch House in Emeryville
Eugene took a couple months off to recuperate before settling on a new venture. They acquired the Ranch House restaurant and property in 1964 and renamed it Eugene’s Ranch House. The restaurant at 4081 Hollis Street located across from Emeryville Town Hall was originally built c. 1920 as the Holly-Park Service station and was also a Rio Grande Service Station.
One of the appeals of owning the Ranch House was it only required working Monday through Friday and there was no dinner service since the town was mostly vacant after the workers left. “We were one of the few places in town at the time including the Oaks Club Hofbrau, The Townhouse, Jim’s, The Shanty and Rodoni’s Club.”
It was a shift downward for Eugene but the work was still very demanding and required long hours. “My father’s day started out at 5 a.m.,” Ben detailed. “He would drive from our home in Alameda, pick up their other cook Yem near the Grand Lake theater and head to Emeryville.”
“My dad had a routine. He would eat the same lunch everyday which were the scraps from the meat slicer rolled into a ball with an egg, a scoop of rice and vegetables topped with gravy. He would then nap everyday at 2 o’clock on a bench in the back.”
In 1975 when Eugene was 69, they bought their Park Avenue house adjacent to the restaurant “so he could have a proper place to nap.” Eventually, instead of commuting from Alameda, the Yee’s ended up moving to Emeryville to be closer to the restaurant.
Eugene’s steadily grew in popularity and at their peak, they were serving between 500 and 600 meals per day. The restaurant also served as a communal gathering space where the Yee’s would entertain family, friends and other members of the community. “In those days, it was not uncommon to see the entire Emeryville Police force in our restaurant at the same time.”
Eugene’s original menus have been converted to café tabletops at Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café (Photos: Doug Smith).
Eugene’s menu was nothing fancy but their comfort-style food was a favorite of Emeryville’s working-class. “Everyday we had a different canned vegetable, a couple entrées, a fresh soup, a tossed green salad and a macaroni or potato salad with jello, cottage cheese, peaches and half a maraschino cheery on top. We generally offered one daily Chinese menu item as well. We also had a pie case with fresh pies from St. Francis Pie shop which was a commercial bakery next to where the McDonald’s on San Pablo Avenue is.”
Their “No. 1” breakfast consisting of two pancakes, an egg and two pieces of bacon or sausage cost a mere $1.95 in 1990. There was no tipping.
Eugene’s extreme value and speed was especially appealing to workers of the nearby factories including Del Monte (where Pixar is now), Judson Steel (IKEA Parking lot), The Santa Fe Railroad Yard (East Bay Bridge Shopping Center), the Sherwin-Williams Paint factory (now The Emery Housing Development) & PG&E. Other local business Ben notes were United Stamping, Kinline, Western Die-casting, California Blinds and Smith’s Warehouse.
Eugene’s cherished their loyal clientele keeping track of their birthdays and other life events in an era way before the prevalence of computers. “It was kinda like ‘Cheers’ where everybody knew each others’ name.”
Eugene’s also took care of their employees, many who were Chinese immigrants, and treated them like family. “I was forced to learn Chinese but unfortunately most of it I’ve lost.”
They offered medical and paid vacation in an industry where it was not commonplace at the time. “Looking back at our menu prices, I really have no idea how we did it,” joked Ben.
Passing of the Torch
Ruby suffered from a heart condition related to a childhood rheumatic fever. She initially tried to cure her condition with Chinese herbs before relenting to surgery. She passed away from complications from valve replacement surgery in 1984.
A devastated Eugene was not ready to retire and Ben stepped in to help run the place with his father. “The Ranch House was my Father’s life,” Ben explained. “I knew he needed me more than ever. My mother referred to it as his ‘mistress.’ It kind of was.”
Ben inherited his fathers work-ethic and started working alongside his dad as early as the 4th grade. “If you want to eat, you have to work!” were his fathers words that he instilled in Ben.
All told, Ben put 20 years behind the counter at Eugene’s. “When I look back, I got to learn his story and get to really know and understand him. It was a fun place to work and be together as a family. Our customers loved our food but they were also entertained by us and our hustle. We were a team, it was fun and my father was proud of me.”
Eugene continued to work until a broken hip in 1995 forced his retirement.
Ben’s sister Priscilla resumed operations of the cafe for a few years after but the Ranch House’s decline was well underway. The neighborhood was rapidly gentrifying and convenient and cheap food options began permeating Emeryville.
By the early 90’s, most of Emeryville’s heavy industry was gone and the businesses that replaced them were not the blue-collar workers that the Ranch House catered to.
Eugene passed away in 2000 at the age of 94. The family opted to close Eugene’s a short time later.
2002: Ranch House transformed into Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café
The loss of Eugene’s left a void in the neighborhood but Ben & Priscilla were reluctant to lease the space to just anyone.
Eugene’s was not only a favorite of Emeryville’s working class, it was a favorite of local musicians and artists who used Emeryville & West Oakland’s eroding warehouses for cheap practice and live-work space. One of those patrons was Jeffrey Bischoff who, as detailed in this 2002 SF Gate article, had developed a friendship with Ben and Priscilla.
Bischoff and partners Steve Mills and Zach Zeisler, along with an investment from Green Day Bassist Mike Dirnt, took over the space and opened Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café in 2002 (named after the 1979 The Clash song Rudie Can’t Fail).
They gutted the interior and freshened up the exterior. The legacy of Eugene’s was honored with mementos in a couple of Rudy’s acrylic café tables (one unfortunately damaged) and some of their classic menu items like Wednesday’s Beefaroni special.
Ben Today: Out & Proud
Ben knew from the age of five that he was gay but repressed it, married a woman and became a father.
He eventually summoned the courage to come out to his family when he was 40.
“I was waiting for a flight home from Berlin when inspiration came. I poured my heart out in an eight page letter that I whittled down to four and mailed 75 copies to friends and family when I arrived home. I remember pausing for a few seconds at the mailbox and then I told myself ‘you’ve come this far Ben, just finish it’ and I dumped them in.”
I remember pausing for a few seconds at the mailbox and then I told myself ‘you’ve come this far Ben, just finish it’ and I dumped them in.
The next few days were an anxious time as he waited for reaction but he soon began receiving phone calls and beautiful cards congratulating him (although he notes it wasn’t a huge surprise for some). “Coming out was a huge relief for me. I no longer had to hide or make up stories I got to be ME.” His coming out also inspired one of his closest friends to do the same.
Because of Chinese tradition that comes with being the first born male, he never came out to his father.
Ben eventually met his life-partner Michael Bogart through a defunct gay online dating site in 2003. Their first date was at Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley. They legally married in 2008.
Ben opted to stay in Emeryville and bought out his siblings making the Park Avenue house his permanent home.
Now 68, he spends his time managing his rental properties, acquiring nicknacks and looking after his 5-year-old grandson Jefferson. He maintains a sense of pride in the community he helped forge and can often be seen picking up trash or even landscaping city property that has fallen into disrepair.
Despite his family being discriminated against, Ben appreciates the opportunity afforded to his family by living in the U.S. “When I visited China in 1985, it really opened my eyes. Every American child should visit a developing country so they appreciate what they have and what their parents sacrificed. One thing about the older generation of Chinese, they persevered because they knew how bad it was and know where they came from.”
Feature Image: Eugene Yee in front of his family restaurant in 1983 (Photo: Ben Yee).
Editors Note: This story was updated to include the name of the service station that existed prior to the Ranch House.