Gourmet fare pops up in Oakland
on July 6, 2010
On a corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, across from Highway 24’s on-ramp and next to the elevated BART line, there is a big two-story brick building. In the early 1900’s it used to be home to a streetcar depot, but now this building is all about food. Not only is Grace Street Catering based here but also on randomly-selected afternoons a couple hundred people gather here to shop, browse and taste ready-made food from top chefs from all over the Bay Area.
It’s not a farmers market, food fair or co-op—it’s the Pop-Up General Store, a place where people can buy pre-made food that can’t normally be found outside of an expensive restaurant. The food sold at the Pop-Up General Store is some of the best in the area; almost all of the vendors are current or former Chez Panisse cooks. “For us it’s been about promoting people who are doing good work,” says Samin Nosrat, a tall woman with black curly hair who is one of the co-founders of the Pop-Up General Store. “We all have the same quality and standards.”
Pop-Up General Store has been going on for the last six months at the Grace Street Catering building and it happens every two to three weeks—but each pop-up is not scheduled until just days before. Customers find out about each event by joining the email list, reading the blog or following the Facebook page.
Almost all of the food is prepared for people to use at home; there is no live cooking—except for pizzas being cooked by Pizza Politana in a wood-burning oven in the front yard. The ideas is for customers to shop as they would at a grocery store. And with chicken leg confit made by Soul Food Farm, heritage pork gyoza made with local ginger, garlic and cabbage in handmade wrappers by Peko Peko and caramelized banana cake with cream cheese frosting made by Amy Hatwig of Amy Cakes (she’s a baker for Bakesale Betty), the food tends to sells out quickly.
In addition to these prepared food items, patrons can buy gourmet pantry ingredients too, like Madagascar vanilla beans, Amarena Cherries and Valrhona Cocoa Powder. Vendors set up their booths and offer samples of everything from vinegar slowly aged in oak wine barrels to strawberry-rose jam.
During last week’s pop-up, Nosrat was busy running around, saying hello to her friends and making sure all of her customers were getting the Italian fennel sausages flavored with chili flakes and white wine or the vegetarian summer squash and basil soup that they had pre-ordered via the web site—both are recipes that she and her partner, former Chez Panisse and Eccolo chef, Christopher Lee came up with when they cooked together at Eccolo.
When the restaurant folded last August, Nosrat and Lee started thinking about other ways to reach diners. “People would come up to us and say ‘I really miss the ravioli,’ or ‘I miss the sausages,’” says Nosrat. “And we thought, why don’t we sell these items directly to people?”
During the first pop-up, in early January, Nosrat and Lee were the only vendors and about fifty people came through. By the second pop-up they realized that they needed to get business permits and enlist more vendors. Now—having done almost ten pop-ups—they have more than fifteen vendors selling meat, sweets, flowers, produce and even pottery.
“I’m the resident potter here,” says Diana Fayt, who makes ceramics that are carefully painted with delicate motifs of flora and fauna. She has designed a line of plates and cups especially for the Pop-Up General Store that are specifically geared towards food and functionality—for instance her ceramic cups are durable and can be used for baking. “Food and pots go together,” she says. She explains that since the pop-up is geared for people to buy items they will use at home, selling cookware also makes sense.
Fayt knew Nosrat before the pop-ups began, as did Alexis Koefoed, the owner of Soul Food Farm, which a chicken farm where all the animals are pasture-raised. Many of the vendors come from a circle of colleagues and friends who have the same ideas about how food should be raised and prepared—that it be local, organic, free-range and made with the best quality ingredients. “It’s a fun way to see everybody and meet people,” Koefoed says about the pop-up. “If she hadn’t invited me I would have felt left out of the party.”
For the time being, Nosrat and Lee plan to keep the Pop-Up General Store as is with its irregular schedule. Then they may slowly expand the business. “We don’t want to commit to saying this has to become a brick and mortar business,” she says. “It’s an organic, evolving thing.”
The pop-up’s blog offers information about how to find out when the next event will be and how to pre-order food, as well as cooking suggestions and recipes. Grace Street Catering is on 4629 Martin Luther King Jr. Way at 47th Street.
Lead image: People shop tasting jams and marmalades at the Pop-Up General Store.
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