By Patrick May
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) From Chocolate to Wine to Bread even kettle corn….food entrepreneurs in Oakland Ca. are experiencing an innovative time of food entrepreneurship. As hipsters and young families are priced out of San Francisco and take up residence in the nearby underdeveloped city, commerce is following. For women in business who are looking for the right place to ignite that spirit of creativity, Oakland may be a good match.
“Oakland,” says master chocolatier Pete Brydon, “has a very vibrant chocolate scene.”
Chocolate scene? Yup. And a thriving beer-garden scene. Not to mention a crazy cupcake scene, the first signs of both a kettle-corn and a Japanese fried-chicken scene, a burgeoning bagel scene and so many other cutting-edge edible and drinkable scenes that it’s a wonder this city of more than 400,000 people hasn’t yet collapsed beneath the weight of its own hipness.
“It’s so happening right now in Oakland that it’s ridiculous,” said Venezuelan-chocolate maestro Brydon, whose commercial kitchen near Jack London Square has ballooned into a sort of incubator for fledgling chocolatiers of all description, each feeding the beast that is foodie Oakland these days. “There’s a real entrepreneurial spirit alive in this city,” he added, “and there are a ton of food people drawn to Oakland from San Francisco because they can’t afford to live and work there anymore.”
Brydon’s family-run operation is one small cog in a sprawling, churning apparatus made up of small- to mid-sized, independently owned, boutique producers and purveyors of cutting-edge yumminess.
And thanks to these entrepreneurs, Oakland these days has less need than ever to apologize for not being San Francisco or even Berkeley with its royal Alice Waters bloodline. As Gertrude Stein might have said, “there is definitely a there there now.”
“It’s a beautiful time to be in Oakland,” said Peter Ngu, who transformed a small gourmet kettle-corn operation that started out at the Laney College Flea Market into a thriving retail enterprise in the Laurel District that employs 15 part- and full-time workers. “We started doing more catering and festivals, and the demand was increasing more and more as word got out. So we decided to get a small-business loan and open up shop on MacArthur Boulevard in a former video rental store that had been abandoned for 15 years.”
Ngu’s operation is now just one of several new or planned businesses in the Laurel where hipsters and young families priced out of San Francisco and more expensive parts of Oakland now frequent diners, cool beer gardens and upscale food markets popping up further and further into Oakland’s eastern reaches, even as they drive away poorer longtime residents.
“We have a very special place in our hearts for Oakland,” Ngu said. “There’s a lot of culture here, and we get a lot of support from the local community, many of whom have become our friends over time. It’s a great city and a great time to be living in it.”
While Oakland has seen a steady proliferation of indie eateries, microbreweries, artisanal coffee joints and communal kitchens ever since the Great Recession, observers and participants of the latest wave say the city is now firing on all cylinders.
As the Oakulture website points out, this city’s long been considered something of “a cultural mecca,” from its jazz-and-blues scene in the ’30s to its parade of writers, filmmakers and even political activists who have helped sharpen Oakland’s trademark edge to the point now of claiming national stature.
These days, that same innate streak of chutzpah powers this delicious mashup: Baristas whose coffee is delivered to you on bicycle; ice-cream alchemists playing around with imported Philippine purple yams; young chefs desperately booking crammed communal kitchens months in advance; bakers like Firebrand’s Colleen Orlando and the rare Spanish brick wood-fired oven called a Llopis she describes as something of a rock star of the baker set; and not just one but two wine sellers offering rare naturally made Old World fruit bombs that are drawing connoisseurs from Italy, France and even Japan.
“There’s a market already for organic wines, but there are not that many shops that do what we do,” says Bradford Taylor, owner of Ordinaire Wine Shop & Wine Bar on Grand Avenue, catering to the same niche market as The Punchdown on Broadway. Their wines are not only produced organically in the vineyard, but have little or no additives introduced during fermentation or bottling. “It’s kind of crazy that there are two of us so close together, but that’s made Oakland an organic- and natural-wine destination for people around the United States and overseas.”
To be sure, Oakland has been receiving piles of media attention lately that helped it earn a sort of culinary gravitas among American cities, said Northwestern University sociology professor Gary Fine, author of “Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work.” He recognizes that much of the Oakland story is real-estate driven.
“What do you need to turn around a city that for years has been fairly underdeveloped, poor and working-class? How do you gentrify it, and do you want to gentrify it? Restaurants are often kind of the first-movers in this scenario because they’re small businesses and don’t require a lot of capitalization.”
The path, he said, is a well-trodden one. “First the artists come, then the gays and lesbians come, and they begin to create a cultural capital and these businesses follow. Restaurants and bars are the early movers as neighborhoods stabilize. And then you get larger restaurants as you move from micro-businesses to midlevel businesses until, as we saw in places like SoHo (in New York), you eventually get the big chains. So Oakland right now could be witnessing a slow evolution in which this is just a first early chapter.”
Which certainly won’t sit well with everyone in Oakland. The recent announcement that ride-booking giant Uber was opening up a huge headquarters downtown next year, for example, raised concerns among many Oaklanders who worry about the impact of further gentrification. “Oakland has got to say to them, ‘You have to make sure it’s not just a castle on the hill,'”
California Labor Federation leader Art Pulaski said recently about Uber’s impending arrival, and many share his views.
Still, the city and its visitors bureau are helping push things along. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf calls her city “a welcoming home for creative entrepreneurs.” And so, as edgy doughnut-hole makers experiment with ingredients like ginger and Kaffir lime, and savvy bartenders pour exotic wines from Spain, and the chocolatiers’ “bean-to-bar” movement marches onward with no sign of melting, Oakland settles in at its communal table, loosens its communal belt, and hogs out.