Sunset offices behind Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon in Jack London Square. Photo: Deborah Grossman
Sunset offices behind Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon in Jack London Square. Photo: Deborah Grossman

Above historic Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon in Jack London Square, editors Margo True and Sara Schneider bustle around the modern, second-floor offices of Sunset Magazine. In the midst of putting together a summer issue, they are reviewing photos for the zinfandel and ancho chili burger pairing spread and taste-testing homemade Choco Tacos.

Both food editor True and wine editor Schneider are English literature graduates and history buffs, who appreciate the historic coincidence of Sunset’s relatively new headquarters in Jack London Square, and its proximity to Heinold’s. Famed American writer Jack London, an Oakland native and one of Heinold’s most famous youthful patrons, wrote stories for Sunset during its early days.

Sunrise for Sunset

Sunset was first founded by the Southern Pacific Company in San Francisco in 1898, and named after the Sunset Limited rail line, which traveled between New Orleans and Los Angeles. A travel magazine, Sunset was created as a promotional guide, highlighting places that the railroad traversed. The magazine managed to print the May 1906 issue a few weeks after the San Francisco earthquake due to heroic efforts by staff to rescue the printing press.

Ephemera from days past, on the bookshelf at Sunset HQ. Photo: Deborah Grossman

In 1914, a group of those dedicated editorial staffers, under the name Woodhead, Field and Company, became its new owners and changed its focus to become more of a literary magazine. However, in 1928, when Laurence W. Lane acquired the magazine, it became “the Magazine of Western Living,” covering travel, home and garden, food and occasionally, drink.

As new residents poured into the west after World War II, they turned to Sunset to learn how to cook with avocados and when to plant tomatoes. The magazine relocated to Menlo Park in 1951, on a campus designed to be a “laboratory for Western living.” The headquarters itself was in a 30,000-square-foot California Mission-inspired building by mid-century architect Cliff May, set on almost eight acres with lush gardens, a test kitchen and an ever-evolving “Idea House.”

A new day in Oakland

In 2015, Time Inc., Sunset’s current owners, saw gold in Silicon Valley real estate and sold the property for a reported $78 million. A year later, its business and editorial operations moved to offices on the second floor of a waterfront building at 55 Harrison St. in Jack London Square, which encompasses about 20,000-square feet. In addition, Sunset has a separate location at Cornerstone, a public garden, event and retail space in Sonoma, that serves as the location for Sunset’s gardens, outdoor test kitchen and event space.

Although the move was for financial reasons, it couldn’t have been at a better time to a better place. While its former Menlo Parks grounds were iconic, architecturally significant and a sight to behold, the shift from suburban headquarters to a more centrally located urban environment in Oakland set the magazine in the heart of an area that is seeing growth as well innovation. Currently a center for the Bay Area’s culinary scene, Oakland is especially vibrant, rich and diverse, with restaurants, bars and food-based businesses galore.

For True and Schneider, being immersed in “The Town” has influenced both their professional and personal perspectives, and brought fresh inspiration to the magazine’s food and wine sections.

A Sunset staffer in the test kitchen, with Margo True (left) and Sara Schneider.
Photo: Deborah Grossman

“Our location helps us reinforce and find inspiration for our commitment [as a magazine of the Western region] to reflect people of all heritages in our pages, and to show how we invigorate each other, especially in the kitchen,” said True, who was a senior editor at Gourmet and the executive editor of Saveur before joining Sunset in 2006.

As Sunset’s food editor, being in Oakland is a boon for sourcing ingredients. Shopping for the diverse recipes for the magazine’s 6.5 million print and online readers is exponentially easier in the city. “I love being a five-minute walk from Chinatown. Every time I stroll down Webster Street I find something new. The other day I discovered rolled Thai ice cream [at Freezing Point Creamery], and I seek out fresh, crunchy lotus root in the [neighborhood] produce markets.” True is also a fan of the crisp-skinned duck at Peony restaurant in Chinatown and the many offerings at Swan’s Market in Old Oakland, especially California-Mexican café Cosecha. In Uptown, she likes Calavera, where her favorite drink is the Sta. Catarina negroni made with mezcal. In Fruitvale, you may find her at Reem’s, a Palestinian-Syrian bakery.

True also enjoys being in the center of an engaged food community. She often attends and participates in food-related panel discussions in San Francisco and the East Bay, and values being close to UC Berkeley, where she attends food policy talks presented through the Edible Education 101 public lecture series.

Schneider and True in the Sunset wine cellar. Photo: Deborah Grossman

Before joining Sunset in 1995, wine editor Schneider was a food editor for Bay Food magazine in Emeryville. At that time, she recalled, the East Bay food scene was just heating up. These days, Schneider lives in Point Richmond. As a new resident of the East Bay, her perspective on Oakland has also evolved. “I’m excited about the diversity in the East Bay, at every level. I lived in Mountain View for many years and had assumed I lived in a diverse town just because I could hear 10 languages in a five-block walk down the main street. But I realize now that there was little socio-economic diversity there, and being surrounded by it here now has prompted new thinking for me,” said Schneider.

Schneider still visits Napa and Sonoma wineries, but to her delight, the growing and vibrant winery scene in Oakland and Berkeley has brought her closer to talented wine people. “I’m able to pick winemakers’ brains — and yes, taste their wares — more often and more casually. The other day I sneaked around the corner to Dashe Cellars, just intending to buy a bottle I wanted to taste for a wine column, and owners Mike and Anne Dashe were there. We compared notes, and I came away with a much deeper appreciation for their approach to making balanced wine than I could have gotten from a distance,” said Schneider. She also appreciates the large number of wine importers in the East Bay, who she can tap for information and samples.

Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon is a tempting stop on the way to and from Sunset HQ. Photo: Deborah Grossman
Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon is a tempting stop on the way to and from Sunset HQ. Photo: Deborah Grossman

When asked directly about the downsides of working in Jack London Square, True reports an environmental issue. “The hooting of the Amtrak train a few feet from our office tends to drown out our food videos. But it’s okay, because we lay the sound down afterwards.”

And then, Schneider said, there’s Heinold’s. “There’s the challenge of resisting a daily dip into Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon just below us.”

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Deborah Grossman is a San Francisco Bay Area food, drink and travel journalist who writes about people and places with a special emphasis on life at the table. Deborah finds the behind the scenes stories...