Late last week, I found myself at Fruitvale’s Ale Industries seated across from 30-year-old Jessica Moncada. We arrived a full two hours before the brewery opens its doors to the public, but brewer Dylan Cardiff came trotting out to make certain that the VIP with whom I was seated had beer in her glass.
“I love the fruit beers, and just the whole vibe of this place,” Moncada said. “They have games, fun parties and everyone is so welcoming.” Ale Industries is also next door to her father, Keba Konte‘s, coffee roastery Red Bay Coffee, so, she said, “it’s easy to find my way over here.”
Working as I do in food and wine, Moncada’s face and name were already familiar. Turns out, we have a lot of mutual friends, and damned near all of them are circulating a Kickstarter page on Facebook and Twitter raising funds for Proof, Moncada’s in-progress bottle shop. (As of press time, Proof has raised $14,585 of the $45,000 that it will need to open.)
I spent an afternoon with Moncada, contextualizing her plans for Proof by way of a guided tour of Oakland led by her — doing what food and beverage people do… eating, drinking and talking shop.
Asked what she liked about Bay Grape, Moncada said: “I love that it is woman-owned, first of all. And what inspires me about it is that it’s this perfect blend of casual and fancy. I want that for Proof. I love that I can come to this cool, casual space and buy rare bottles, or just something simple. And they are just so friendly.”
Each of Moncada’s venue selections suggested to me, a jaded old sommelier, that she knows Oakland, cares about quality and has something to say about beverages.
Moncada is a fourth-generation Bay Area native with entrepreneurship in her blood. Keba Konte, her father, has deep roots in the East Bay coffee scene, having opened Guerilla Café in Berkeley and, more recently, launched Red Bay Coffee. Her stepmother is Rachel Konte, owner of the Oakland clothing store, OwlNWood. Its original location, on Grand Avenue, will now house Proof. Her mother, Renee Moncada, even managed “bounce queen” Big Freedia, for whom she still produces her eponymous reality television show.
The younger Moncada honed her craft over a ten-plus year career that began with the hospitality master class that is the front of house at Chez Panisse. Moncada then moved over to another of the Bay Area’s finest restaurants, Camino, where Thad Vogler taught her how to tend bar. For the uninitiated, learning bartending from Vogler is something akin to being taught how to play trumpet by Miles Davis. Moncada still speaks with particular reverence about his commitment to working only with quality, seasonal ingredients, a concept that resonated easily with her, fresh from her experience at Chez Panisse. When Vogler couldn’t find organic lemons? There were no lemons behind the bar. Limes out of season? No limes. Vogler also taught her that spirits change from batch to batch: when you get a bad batch, leave it out. Omission of inferior ingredients in favor of serving superior cocktails remains an important tenet in her own work.
It was in Moncada’s next move, bartending at Flora, where her passion for bringing retail to downtown Oakland was ignited. That the downtown area of her vibrant, culture-rich hometown was mostly empty at night — save for a handful of businesses, like Flora, that kept their doors open late — struck a sour note.
From Flora, she eschewed the vampire hours of bar work to try her hand at craft spirit retail at San Francisco’s Cask. It was here that the idea for Proof really came into focus. Each day, she encountered a steady stream of bartenders on their way into work, grabbing tools or bottles needed for that night’s shift. It became clear to her that a shop in Oakland catering specifically to the rapidly growing number of East Bay bar professionals was both needed and well within her wheelhouse.
Before taking the leap into making Proof a reality, Moncada also worked at San Francisco’s Bourbon and Branch and Rockridge’s Ramen Shop. Currently, while she works on Proof, she does freelance event planning and cocktail catering. She may continue to do the latter from the Proof space, after she has been open for six or so months.
In addition to serving the needs of the massive, and growing, craft cocktail community of the East Bay, Proof will be a subtle homage to the Oakland liquor stores that Moncada grew up in and around. Quality takes on corner-store classics, like beef jerky and chicharones, will be available for purchase. The model invites one to hang around and listen to music, taste a spirit or cocktail, sign up for a class, or pick up whatever bar tools you didn’t know you needed.
Moncada says the spirit selections will reflect, at the high end of the price scale, the best she can find in small-production, family-owned craft distillates. Her goal is to educate the public to think of the quality, health and social ramifications of what they imbibe. She points out that all too often people choose to eat well-sourced, sustainably farmed food, then drink industrial plonk, rife with scary additives and fraught with terrifying social impacts in their countries of origin. She would like to help to change that.
At the less pricey end she will seek out the finest “gateway liquors,” or slightly less craft-oriented products that are already popular, in order to make the shop utilitarian for its users. She also mentions that as an un-ironic nod to Oakland, spirits like Hennessy Cognac will be available, as Hennessy is, in her mind, an essential Oakland beverage.
As we moved from venue to venue, I saw a familiar scene. People hopped from behind counters and ran in from the street to give her hugs and catch up on what was new. Seated at Cosecha, where she consults on the small yet effective cocktail program, owner Domenica Rice-Cisneros beamed at her and talked about how instrumental Moncada has been to the success of Cosecha.
“Dominica [Rice-Cisneros], Sara Kirnon [of Miss Ollie’s] and Tanya Holland [of Brown Sugar Kitchen] have been such incredible mentors to me,” Moncada said. “They immediately took me under their wing and shared their challenges and successes with me. I still work with them, run ideas by them. I feel so lucky to be able to be around them and let their magic rub off on me.”
Proof itself is a new entity, but Moncada is already a significant thread in the tapestry of the Bay Area food and beverage business, and one can only hope she has a bright future ahead of her.
“I want to create a space that is warm and welcoming for everyone,” she said. “A place where I can showcase artisanship and quality products. I’d like to cement my place in the Oakland community and deepen the entrepreneurial roots my family has started.”