Panel of local food entrepreneurs kicks off Oakland’s third annual Restaurant Week


View Oakland Restaurant Week 2013 in a larger map
Map courtesy of Oakland Restaurant Week.

An appetizer, entrée and dessert at the Grand Tavern gastropub for $20; $30 for a three-course dinner up at the Claremont Hotel or $40 to wine and dine on Caribbean soul food at Miss Ollie’s—these are just a few of the restaurants across the city which are offering special, fixed-price menus for Oakland’s third annual Restaurant Week. The 10-day event began on Friday and will run until January 27, offering diners an array of choices from seafood to Mexican, Vietnamese or Ethiopian cuisine.

But its organizers intend for the Restaurant Week to be more than a 10-day dining spree—Oakland’s restaurants provide employment for residents while also enriching local cuisine. “Food and beverage is one of the city’s top sectors,” said Margot Lederer Prado of the city’s Office of Economic & Workforce Development. “It is permeating our lives in many ways, both economically and through our cultural values.”

About 2,500 locals are working in the food industry, Prado said, which includes not only restaurants but also the production of food and drink. Oakland saw a 12 percent increase in sales tax revenues from restaurants serving beer and wine from 2011 to 2012, she said, and Restaurant Week is encouraging more support for the thriving food businesses in the city.

To kick off Restaurant Week on Friday, a panel of local food and drink entrepreneurs discussed Oakland’s food industry at City Hall. The speakers—Reem Hassani of Numi Tea, Adam Lamoreaux of Linden Street Brewery, George Vukasin from Peerless Coffee and Nikhil Arora, known around town as the “mushroom guy” for running Back to the Roots, a company that grows mushrooms in used coffee grounds—spoke passionately about Oakland’s history and the city’s culinary renaissance.

“We love Oakland,” said Vukasin, the CEO of Peerless Coffee, which has been in the city for more than half a century—he remembers when a cup of coffee cost just a nickel in the 1940s. He said many of the other big coffee companies founded in the Bay Area at the same time have left. “The old timers are gone,” he said, “but there are a lot of micro-roasters in the area now.”

Microbreweries, small local shops and urban farmers have also moved into Oakland. In a warehouse on Adeline Street in West Oakland, out there with the Hodu Soy tofu makers and other artisan food companies, two UC Berkeley graduates are growing urban mushrooms.

Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora founded Back to the Roots, a company that aims to “create tools to connect people to food,” Arora told the audience at Friday’s panel. The pair use spent coffee grounds to grow mushrooms in the warehouse space. When visitors began asking to take bags of oyster mushrooms home, he said, they decided to create a do-it-yourself, all-in-one kit that would let one grow mushrooms in a box on the kitchen counter.

These kits are now being sold in 2,500 stores, including Home Depot, Safeway, Whole Foods and local shop Oaklandish, Arora said. “The experience of growing food can be equally as powerful as just eating it,” he said. “We’re making food personal again.”

The Oakland food industry is also trying to create jobs in the local community. “We need to create jobs that you don’t need a PhD for,” said Lamoreaux, owner of Linden Street Brewery. “The kinds of jobs that give people hope in the neighborhoods we’re in.”

Before Lamoreaux started mashing and fermenting grains in West Oakland—he brewed his first batch of beer in June, 2009—it had been 50 years since the last local brewery closed. With every new restaurant and food venture that opens in the city and stocks his beer, the opportunities for his own business also grow, he said.

He stressed the need for diners to ask hard questions, to make sure the restaurants and food companies receiving community support are giving back to Oakland and other local communities. “Oakland’s success has been our success. Linden Street is part of a boom that is happening in Oakland,” Lamoreaux said at the panel. “Think about that when you’re at your restaurant. At least ask the bartender where your beer comes from, and how the money ends up back in Oakland.”

Hassani, who co-founded Numi Tea in Oakland 14 years ago with her brother Ahmed Rahim, said they are making plans to give back to the community. Numi has become one of the fastest growing tea companies in the country, and now the siblings have started a non-profit foundation with two initiatives: the first will sponsor an arts and environmental curriculum called NUMI (Nature Underlies My Inspiration) in local schools. The second, called ACTION (A Co-creative Transformation In Our Neighborhoods), will help community groups in Oakland work together, Hassani said. The foundation has so far placed one NUMI teacher in a charter school in West Oakland, she said.

The tea shop, currently located near Oakland’s waterfront, east of Jack London Square, will move in the next year or so to downtown Oakland, where Hassani said they are planning to create a block called “The Hive,” with a brewery and a few restaurant options arrayed around a central courtyard, which will host community events.

Recognizing these businesses “as social entrepreneurship,” councilmember Patricia Kernighan (District 2), presented each panelist with an achievement award from the city. “They are thinking not only about profits, but what they can do to serve the community,” she said.

Visitors and locals will have the chance to experience these ideas and taste food at a few of the many Oakland eateries, with deals from 46 restaurants this week. Fixed price menus at $20, $30 and $40 are offered for lunch or dinner around town. Reservations are recommended and can be made at OaklandRestaurantWeek.org.

Restaurants participating in Restaurant Week can be found on the interactive map above, courtesy of Oakland Restaurant Week. You can also see a list of participating restaurants and their dining offers here.

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