This month, the final nails will be hammered into the walls of The Berkeley Kitchens, a revolutionary new hub for artisanal food manufacturing in West Berkeley. Conceptualized by local sculptor and real-estate developer Jonah Hendrickson, the building is home to some 15 local food businesses, from bakers to caterers, and everything in between.
Hendrickson didn’t intend to make his name building kitchens. His first development project was a collection of artist studios in West Oakland that has been home to the Shotgun Players, Oaklandish, and “all kinds of really neat people,” he said.
While working on the studio project, Hendrickson was approached by a number of food businesses looking for rental kitchen space. Since his current project wasn’t set up for commercial kitchens, he tried to help these potential clients look elsewhere. “The bottom line is, I couldn’t find any space available, but there were all these people looking for it,” he said. “I though it would be cool for that in my next project, whatever it would be, that I would build some kitchens.” Build kitchens he has.
Hendrickson found the perfect space three years ago: an historic warehouse situated at 2701 Eighth St., at the intersection with Carleton. Originally home to the Standard Die & Tool Company, the building was also used to make cluster bombs during World War II. Most recently, it was home to an art collective. Since the artists left in 2006, the building has stood abandoned.
West Berkeley has long been a nerve center for manufacturing, and Hendrickson believes that The Berkeley Kitchens fits right into this model. “I think these kitchens are a new wave of contemporary manufacturing. In many ways people are still doing in this building what they’ve always done here,” he said.
When he first began working on the building, Hendrickson envisioned a mix of artist studios, offices, and kitchens. But as word spread throughout the food community, it became clear that kitchens were destined to be the focus of the building. “I told a few people that we were going to [build a few] kitchens, and I just started getting a bunch of phone calls,” he said. He brought potential tenants into the empty shell of a building and explained the concept. “People were saying, ‘Can I write you a check to reserve one right now?’ I thought, ‘Well shit. Would it be totally crazy to build the whole thing as kitchens?’ ”
So Hendrickson scrapped the idea of having mixed-use on the ground floor of the building, leaving only the second floor for office and studio space. Only one of the tenants upstairs, Stone House Olive Oil, is a food-related business.
The 15 units in the ground floor of the building filled quickly. Each was rented with range hoods and sinks installed, typically a huge financial hurdle for small businesses. Most of Hendrickson’s tenants are established companies that had previously operating out of shared community kitchens. While they had outgrown the shared spaces, most of Hendrickson’s tenants couldn’t afford to rent their own standalone space. As Hendrickson explains, buildings like his “are going to be very valuable as a second step after a shared community commercial kitchen. I think that facilities like this will be a real fundamental part of the process of bringing new smaller food companies into the market.”
Hendrickson was careful to get to know each of his potential tenants, effectively curating the building just as one might curate an art gallery. As Hendrickson explains, the tenants “are the ones that go beyond just the empty spaces to give the whole building life. Because once you get your tenants in there, if you pick really good tenants, then you’re going to have these really neat dynamic communities of people that are all doing something in a very like-minded way, in this case, centered around food.”
For the group of bakers who’ve moved in, The Berkeley Kitchens has already proven to be a boon for growth. Since moving into his Berkeley Kitchen, Dan Graf of Baron Baking has signed accounts with the likes of Pixar and Whole Foods. In the next couple of months, he’s planning to boost production from 650 bagels a day to around 1500. “It’s amazing this place came about when it did,” he said. “Because I was outgrowing the old kitchen that I was sharing with Lexi [Filipello of Bar Dogwood]. It was just perfect timing.”
Graf has only been baking bagels for a year and half, but thanks to a stream of good publicity, his New York style bagels are quickly gaining a foothold in the Bay. According to Graf, he’d been dreaming of bagel success for years. “[When I moved out here] five, six years ago, the bagel situation was terrible. There was nothing. So [my friends and I] were joking about how we should start like a company, call it the Bagel Baron, and competitively out price every other bagel company in the Bay Area. It was a pipe dream. We were just joking,” he said. Yet a few years later, Graf had quit his day job to bake bagels on his own, selling them through Stag’s Lunchette and Saul’s (his former employer). “I got really good press through Saul’s and then that kind of snowballed, and now it seems like I’m taking over the Bay Area with bagels.”
But not every baker in the building has his or her eyes on rapid expansion. Eduardo Morell intends to continue to grow his eponymous bread company more slowly. “I feel if I start doing much more, then I’m going to start hating what I do. But that’s what really great about this place. It has really allowed me to pursue a more sustainable way of doing things.”
His new kitchen has indeed provided him with a more sustainable way of life; before moving into The Berkeley Kitchens, Morell was commuting out to the Marin Headlands to bake, and then driving his bread back to Berkeley to sell. “Driving to Marin was just not working for me by any stretch of the imagination. It was hard. I was so tired from driving across the bridge.”
Switching facilities meant that he had to give up a wood-fired oven and beautiful geography, but it was worth it. “Wood-fired brick ovens are great, but when you start doing volume and production, they start to become physically challenging,” Morell said. “Also I do believe that burning wood on such a large scale is just not good nor right for the environment.”
Now Morell uses a larger oven intended for production, allowing him to add Three Stone Hearth, Berkeley’s community-supported kitchen, as a client. Morell is also working on starting a bread subscription service for his renowned naturally leavened bread. “It will be kind of like a CSA vegetable box,” he explains. While he has been in talks with Berkeley restaurant Gather, he doesn’t plan making restaurants a major part of his client base.
Marirose Piciucco, the co-owner of Muffin Revolution, is excited for any new business that comes her way. Muffin Revolution is a relatively new business that bakes grain-free muffins, all but one of which are suitable for the Paleo diet. Piciucco and her business partner, Christy Kovacs, started baking healthy muffins to satisfy their cravings after climbing at Iron Works. “We were rock climbing and wanting some real food after our work out,” said Piciucco.
Since then, their products have evolved from savory whole grain muffins with flavors like Thai yellow curry into grain-free and Paleo muffins due to customer requests. “We’ve gotten such a huge response to the Paleo muffins that we’ve dropped off all of the other muffins that we used to make,” said Piciucco.
Yet, despite their ingredient profile, Piciucco and Kovacs were unable to label their products gluten-free until moving into The Berkeley Kitchens. They had been working out of Kitchener in Uptown, which doesn’t have dedicated gluten-free space. “Our muffins are gluten-free by virtue of being grain-free, but for purposes of labeling we couldn’t put gluten-free unless we were in a gluten-free facility.”
Now that they have their own space, Piciucco and Kovacs will be able to expand. They’d like to see their muffins on more grocery store shelves and cafés in the area. “There aren’t really any grain-free baked items at all in grocery stores,” said Piciucco. “It’s also very frustrating for consumers to walk into a café and have nothing to eat that is gluten-free or grain-free. So we’re excited to be able to move into more cafes in Berkeley.”
Marla Erojo, the owner of Cakes Made by M.E., is just happy to have her own kitchen. Erojo has been baking fantastically designed cakes for weddings and private parties for 13 years; until last fall, she had worked in a rotating assortment of shared kitchens. In her old space at the Uptown Kitchen, there was “lots of lugging, lots of trying to find parking,” she said. “Not that you don’t do that here, but everything is dedicated to each kitchen here. So it’s fabulous, definitely. I don’t have to fight for space.”
Erojo started out as a savory chef, catering weddings from the appetizers through dessert. “That took a lot out of me. I had to choose one thing or the other as soon as I had kids. I’ve always loved pastry. So I went back to it.” Today, her cakes take the shape of everything from Lego blocks to intricate, multilayered extravaganzas. One of which she’s nicknamed the “lampshade cake.” “That one was a crazy one,” she said. “The client told me, ‘I want it like this and like that and I want it sparkly and shiny.’ It’s got a curtain of bling.”
Like Piciucco, Erojo values the input she gets from the other tenants. “We kind of feed off of each other. We bounce ideas off of each other. Like, ‘Hey what do you think about this?’ or ‘Hey, I want you to try this,’ ” she said. “It’s very comfortable. It’s very easy. It’s like home.”
Tasha De Serio’s kitchen feels more like part of an elegant home than a catering kitchen. Spanning almost the entire Eighth Street side of the building, De Serio’s space is beautifully minimalist and serene. De Serio is a former Chez Panisse cook, and one can see the influence of the restaurant in her current work. She cooks with a close eye to seasonality, celebrating the simple goodness of fine, well-sourced ingredients. Today, she uses the kitchen for catering projects, but she plans to use the space for other food projects as they come up. “I really wanted it to be a flexible kitchen, because that’s how my work is. I like to go in a lot of different directions,” she said.
De Serio’s choice to move into The Berkeley Kitchens was not only about the kitchen itself. “It’s nice to be in a building that was done tastefully and [to have this] attention to detail. It was really important to me that this is a beautiful old building,” she said. “Having a nice space to work in is why I really gravitated towards not only this location, but to the project overall.”
For De Serio, Hendrickson’s project was a fortuitous event. She met him right around the same time that her business was shifting. “I had a small kitchen in Oakland and then when my business partner and I parted ways, I needed a new space,” she said. “It was right about the same time that I heard about this project so here I am.”
Similarly, Amy Hamilton of Just Relish Catering found out about the project just as her previous kitchen space was closing. “When we found out about this project, [there were] still dirt floors and no walls.” Hamilton looked at a few smaller units first, but hadn’t yet fallen in love with the building. “I mean, I was excited. I would have taken one in a heartbeat.” Luckily for her, another potential tenant had just relinquished a smaller unit, so “Jonah said he could make us a double-wide. And then as soon as he said that, I just got goosebumps,” said Hamilton. She couldn’t be happier with the space. “It’s like a dream. It’s my utopia.”
Hamilton founded Just Relish in 2010 along with Andrea and Kristen Braasch. The three women specialize in private home and cocktail parties, serving bite-sized California twists on American cuisine. “It’s the American food that people want, we just make it super tiny,” said Andrea Braasch.
Now that they’ve moved into their own kitchen, Hamilton hopes to expand their wedding and corporate business. Being in The Berkeley Kitchens “legitimizes us and makes us truly official,” she said. “It allows us to do larger events because we have the space and we have the capacity. We don’t have to worry about [having to] be out by five o’clock.”
There have been other, unexpected benefits in moving into their kitchen. Just Relish shares a vent duct with Nuthouse Granola. “Gosh, the smell. I would walk in in the morning, and I’m like, ‘God my food smells good. What did I make with cinnamon?’ And then eventually I realized, ‘Oh it’s the granola place!’ ” said Hamilton. “It smells like oatmeal cookies every time I walk in here!”
Also privy to the whiffs of baked granola is Potliquor, a catering and meal service company run by Jennifer Lynch and Laura McGrath. The pair met 14 years ago while working as line cooks. “We’d always known on some level that we were going to go into business together, and we just had been like narrowing in on [what that business would be] for a long time,” said Lynch. While they like catering, both Lynch and McGrath wanted to help their customers engage with the cooking process.
Explains McGrath, “What’s really in our hearts is feeding people every day and getting people to feel empowered to cook for themselves. [We wanted] to figure out a way to make that easier for them, and to give them the tools to grow in cooking.”
This desire led Lynch and McGrath to create what they describe as a “meal project” — a box of prepared food items that includes a hefty entree (carnivore or vegetarian), a few vegetable-based side dishes, and accessories like sauces and bread.
“All the food [in our box] goes together and so you could serve it all at once as kind of a lush dinner party. Or we give suggestions for people to use it with other food that they may have around,” said Lynch. The pair plans each menu around a different theme each week. Recent menus have included a collection of Irish dishes for St. Patrick’s Day called “Luck”, a celebration of the first signs of spring called “Green,” and a reflection on the drought called “Desert.” Potliquor also provides recipes to their clients in hopes of inspiring them to riff on their own.
Lynch and McGrath had been cooking in a “hodgepodge” of kitchens before finding Hendrickson’s building last September. “Moving into this kitchen definitely like made things more formal and let us grow in the way that we’ve been wanting to grow,” said Lynch. “We’re more open to saying yes to things that we previously would have turned down [because of space restrictions],” added McGrath.
Craig Boon started baking granola while he was working as a chef in a San Francisco hotel restaurant. “I [had] always wanted to own a small business, but I didn’t have any knowledge of how it worked and I didn’t have a product.” But once he started making his granola, everything clicked. “I was using a little bit different version of the granola recipe [I use now] and I was getting good feedback on it,” he said. “I started out by having somebody else make it for me. That was okay, but it wasn’t quite there. So then I found a place where I could rent a kitchen and so I started making it on my own. And then just slowly, slowly built up business.”
Today, Boon’s “crazy good” Nuthouse Granola is available in select grocery stores in the East Bay and San Francisco. A nut-heavy blend of pecans, walnuts, almonds, and raisins from California mixed with oats, coconut, olive oil, and maple syrup, Boon’s granola is, indeed, crazy good. “It’s a simple straightforward product. But I take care in it. A lot of other people will put their ingredients in a machine to mix it but it beats the heck out of it. And you end up with this very dusty kind of product. So I mix it by hand. Is it efficient? Not really. Is it tiring? Yeah. But I think it makes a better product, so that’s what I do. And that’s what I’m gonna keep doing.”
Boon found out about The Berkeley Kitchens from De Serio. His current workspace was closing down and he was in need of a kitchen that could be outfitted with a special walk-in convection oven. “So far it’s been really, really cool. I really could have gone just down the road and found something cheaper, but I was excited about the group of people that were coming in. I just knew that the idea of having an incubation situation with a bunch of similarly minded people was going be cool. Everybody is doing something a little bit different, so you get exposed to all different aspects of a similar industry,” said Boon.
Deborah Marksey of Shrub & Co. agrees. “Being a part of this whole broader community of people who are making interesting food or catering, there’s camaraderie. We can share ideas. So this has been amazing,” she said.
It’s good that she’s had such a positive experience — Shrub & Co. moved to Berkeley all the way from Atlanta, Georgia. Marskey and co-owner Juan Garcia were originally from California, so it was a natural relocation for the pair. Plus, “there is just such an awesome food culture and cocktail culture in the East Bay. You hear a lot of people talk about the challenges of starting a business in California, but to us, it’s been an amazing opportunity. We can source the most amazing fruit, all pretty local, and get to know farmers. There’s a lot of support for things that we want to do,” said Marskey.
Shrubs, for those unacquainted with the beverage, are a relic of colonial times. They were originally used as a method of fruit preservation, but today the tangy vinegar and fruit beverage is used most often in bars. Indeed, Garcia and Marksey first learned about shrubs while reading about craft cocktails. “We were like, what the heck is a shrub?” said Garcia. “They intrigued us because we had never heard of them and they had such a deep history in the U.S. So as we were researching them, we met Matt [Bruns]. Matt was working as a bartender, and we just started talking to him. We threw out the idea [of making shrubs], and Matt’s eyes lit up.” They brought Matt on to manage production and started selling their own high-quality shrubs in December of 2012. Says Garcia, “It was a no-brainer. Why not reinvigorate shrubs for the masses?”
Their shrubs are bracing, intense, tasting equally of cold pressed fruit juice and tart vinegar. The spicy ginger is particularly striking. “We’re passionate about the ginger,” said Marskey. “Most of the other stuff that is available just doesn’t have a strong enough ginger flavor. There’s too much sweet going on. We really wanted that kind of funk to get you right off the bat.”
Now that they’ve moved to California, Shrub & Co. has enjoyed forming relationships with local and regional farmers. They’ve teamed up with the Living Wild Project to source Sierra Nevada Douglas Fir needles for their Cranberry and Fir shrub, and they’ve recently begun sending their juiced fruit pulp to two North Bay farms through CropMobster.
Garcia and Marksey are also working to expand their East Bay market share. Right now, their shrubs are available at Ledger’s, The Northbrae Bottle-Shop, Gather, Cesar, and The East Bay Spice Company in Berkeley, but they hope to add more locations soon. “Now that we’re officially here, we’re officially local, that’s going to really make a difference quite a bit,” said Marskey.
Other businesses in The Berkeley Kitchens are looking to expand their influence beyond the scope of food service. Kelsie Kerr, another Chez Panisse alumna, is changing the way we order take-out. She explains that even chefs and people who love to cook need to order delivery from time to time. But she was frustrated with the poor quality of the food available and, just as importantly, “sad about the amount of paper and plastic it takes to get food to your home and to your family.” To solve the problem, Kerr has found a way to mesh her cooking chops with the delivery power of Pedal Express and the gorgeous, re-useable dish ware from Berkeley’s Jered’s Pottery to provide a revolutionary meal service called Standard Fare.
Standard Fare will sell complete meals and smaller, a la carte items for delivery. As befits Kerr’s pedigree, the meals on offer will be prepared with locally sourced, seasonal market ingredients. Meals will come packaged in embossed cazeulas from Jared’s, delivered via bicycle, and will simply need to be heated up before eating. She plans to deliver in the nearby Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley neighborhoods.
Yet Kerr wasn’t initially planning on moving her business into Berkeley. “I was looking for space for Standard Fare, and I was mostly looking in Oakland to be honest. People kept telling me to go in and check out The Berkeley Kitchens. It wasn’t really what I was thinking about, but then I went and looked at it. It was such a beautiful building and it seems like there’s a nice community aspect [to the project],” she said. “It’s a really great location because Emeryville is right there, Oakland is right there, Berkeley is right there, Berkeley Bowl is right there and there’s a lot of small businesses and artist studios and residential space. So it’s kind of a perfect storm of different kinds of people.”
Mission Heirloom Concepts is also a multifaceted endeavor. Founded by Yrmis Barroeta and Bobby Chang, the company aims to change the way we think about sustainable cooking.
“We’re above locavore. We’re above sustainable. We’re beyond organic. We’re trying to figure out the best type of fuel for each individual body. We believe in individual biochemistry,” said Barroeta. “We want to support people that are eating Paleo, support people that are eating GAPS, and support people who have immune disease and need to heal the gut.”
Their food is cooked with an exceptional attention to detail — everything from product sourcing to the temperature at which each ingredient is heated during cooking is analyzed. Their kitchen is grain-free, but is otherwise open to exploring many other diets and food preparations as long as it fits within their toxin-free standards.
The enterprising duo spent several years and brainstorming a way to bring their ideas about health to a wider audience, and their first task is to open a small cafe to bring their food to the public. Their space in the Berkeley Kitchens will serve as a commissary for the cafe, which will open at Shattuck and Vine later this spring. Barroeta and Chang also plan to launch a line of prepared pantry goods called Counter Basics. “It’s everything a person needs to cultivate, and create awesome foods that are made under the same standards that we’re talking about,” said Barroeta. To support their idea that their food should be accessible to anyone, Mission Heirloom will also be providing tailored meal plans for clients and catering events.
Their ultimate goal, however, is to expand their business into cafés across the country. “We want to start a new trend of eating that [could be an example] to the United States and other countries around the world,” said Barroeta. “We want to make it easy to teach people how to eat real food.”
Mission Heirloom is the only company starting from scratch in The Berkeley Kitchens, but Barroeta thinks that it provides the perfect environment for their fledgling company. “We are innovators at heart, and this project is [set up] to support innovative new concepts,” she said. They’re getting to know the other tenants, and hope to use some of their products in their cafe. “The girls from Muffin Revolution are holding pretty similar standards to us,” she said. “We know for sure we’re going to be selling their muffins and they might even develop some different flavors for us.” She’s also looking into partnering with Shrub & Co. to produce cooking syrups. “We’re super excited.”
This system of sharing is indicative of the community environment already forming at The Berkeley Kitchens. Most tenants have formed helpful relationships with at least a few other businesses in the building. “It’s nice to have everybody in one spot. Everybody has such different niches, but the one thing that we all have in common is that we’re all small businesses. It’s nice to have a little hub,” said De Serio “It’s kind of liking living in a great apartment complex. You’re friendly with all of your neighbors, but we definitely function as independent businesses.”
“It’s a great model,” added Lynch. “I think Berkeley and San Francisco and Oakland need more spaces like this because there are so many small food businesses and this is what they all need.”
Piciucco agrees. “There’s an impressive group of people here. You share experiences and you share knowledge, and in that sort of positive environment you can do nothing but grow.”
Morell’s Bread plans to open a bakery in Berkeley (07.23.13)
Baker’s dozen: To Berkeley from a brick oven in Marin (11.18.11)
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