Erin Wade got a law degree from Berkeley in 2008, but quickly realized that she hated being a lawyer. Instead, she turned to her childhood love: mac and cheese. She is now the founder and CEO of Homeroom, a popular mac and cheese restaurant in Oakland, where she and her team have also pioneered a revolutionary tool for dealing with workplace harassment called the Color Code of Conduct. Homeroom has now been open for 11 years, with a new location opening in Berkeley in 2022.
We discussed why the law and entrepreneurship are at odds, restaurants as vehicles for social change, and, of course, the secret to the best mac and cheese. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So, tell me your story. How did you get here?
Well, it’s a pretty long and winding road to founding Homeroom. I had gone back and forth between having this deep passion for food and this deep passion for social change. I had worked in restaurants, and then I attended law school at Cal, and I didn’t think these interests would meet. I had an undergraduate degree in public policy from Princeton, so I thought I would go into law and sort of leave my love of food behind and focus more on social change. But it turns out I didn’t enjoy being a lawyer, so that was a huge wrench in the plan. I mean, it’s a very adversarial way of approaching the world, right? You make change through fighting with people for a living, basically, and I found that super depressing. I had a rude awakening during the financial crisis. In 2008, I realized I wanted to go back to food, that law was not for me. Getting to start a business is really this wonderfully creative and generative process where, depending on how you do it, you have a huge impact on the world and your community. So, in the end, I found a way to combine the change I wanted to see in the world and my love of food, specifically mac and cheese.
Why mac and cheese?
I picked it for a few reasons. I had always been obsessed with restaurants that were incredibly good at one thing. I was always seeking the best taco or the best ice cream or the best burger. And it just didn’t make sense to me that there was no place that was dedicated to the best mac and cheese. It’s a beloved American food! Additionally, I had the best mac and cheese recipe of anyone I knew. It was the recipe I grew up eating, that my dad made for me as a child. I came home from working as an attorney one night and was miserable—really, really depressed. I realized I was craving mac and cheese, and there was no restaurant I could go to that had a version I found acceptable. So, I pulled out that recipe and made it. I felt so happy inside. It dawned on me that there should be a restaurant that does this, and that I should be the person to open it.
What’s Homeroom’s mission?
On paper, our mission is to be the best part of people’s days. That feels a bit revolutionary, at least in this industry, because we mean it very equally for both our employees and our guests. I’d say it’s quite common in restaurants that the focus is really on the guest. But it’s a lot less common that the focus is on how to create a really great employee experience as well. We’re proud of achieving both.
What sorts of things have you done for your employees?
We’re most proud of creating a deeply collaborative workplace where feedback is highly encouraged and has created change over time. For instance, we developed a sexual harassment system years ago in response to survivors complaining of harassment and coming to the leadership team and saying, “Hey, this has happened to us a lot at a lot of restaurants we’ve worked in. This is the first one where we feel safe saying something.” A lot of companies, not just restaurants, would have said, “Great, the leadership team will solve it for you and come back.” But we put together a meeting with basically everyone who wanted to attend and tried to come up with a solution together. And we came up with a really amazing solution that I wrote about in the Washington Post. The piece was shared widely. I was invited to testify about it in front of the EEOC in Washington, DC, and it became their nationally recommended standard for customer-facing businesses. One in 10 Americans works in restaurants. So it’s a really big deal that, out of this small restaurant in Oakland, California, we produced something that created nationwide change.
Do you think your training as a lawyer has helped you run the restaurant and do these things for your employees?
I wish I could tell you that my training as a lawyer helps me. I think I’ve actually had to overcome it to be a good entrepreneur. The law teaches you how to not take risks and how to see everything as a potential lawsuit. And that’s a really damaging mindset. I think it also teaches you to be an adversary in approaching problems. It took me many years to really overcome that. The reason I love being an entrepreneur and I love working in business is that it’s creative instead of adversarial. You need to engage multiple stakeholders in a meaningful and positive way to create something together. That’s magic. I mean, it’s helpful that I can read a contract. But, no, in fact, I hate legal work so much that to this day, even though I could do a lot of it for business things that I get involved in, I purposely outsource all of it because I don’t enjoy looking at the paperwork. So, yeah, sorry. It’s not a good endorsement for law school.
Tell me about the mac and cheese itself.
We make every single mac and cheese to order, so I think that’s something that makes us really special. And the recipes are a little different for everyone, but each mac and cheese has about a quarter pound of cheese in it. It’s really a beautiful product. I mean, it is the best mac and cheese you will ever eat. It’s the same exact recipe that my dad used to make for me, and we make every single one to order for every single person who comes through.
What’s your favorite flavor?
We have so many different varieties, from a buffalo chicken mac to one that’s based on chicken tikka masala. But my favorite is the most simple one. It’s the classic cheddar or the white cheddar. I love the simple taste of cheese. And actually, the white cheddar is our most aged cheese, so that flavor is really strong and it shines. People are always disappointed [with my response], but that’s my truth. I just love the taste of simple, classic, straight-up white cheddar.
What about your kids?
Classic with bacon. Both of their hands-down favorite for years.
Has anyone ever ordered a really out-there flavor?
We have a bunch of add-ins; you could put Flamin’ Hot Cheetos on top, chicken, bacon, and we used to have tuna fish. I mean, all sorts of things. One guy came in and ordered literally every topping mixed in, and it would no longer fit in a conventional bowl. We had to get a giant platter, the kind used when people order platters for the Super Bowl.
You mentioned your dad was the cook in your family?
My mom had polio as a kid, and she can’t really use one side of her body very well. She’s an entrepreneur like me and started her own multimillion dollar business empire. She was doing plenty, but she wasn’t cooking. So my dad was the cook, but he makes five things, and it’s mac and cheese, pancakes, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, and this dish called chicken à la king, which is basically the same sauce as mac and cheese, but you add peas and chicken. So it’s really like four and a half things that my dad makes, but they’re all the best version of that dish you’ve ever had. He sort of perfected the classics and never veered.
Do you think the Bay Area is a good place for mac and cheese?
I think there isn’t a bad place for mac and cheese. I think that’s the beauty of it. But the Bay Area has definitely been very good to us. Our community is one of the most loving, warm, wonderful, diverse mix of people you could ask for. I’m grateful to be here.
Check out our video on Wade and Homeroom on Youtube.