OAKLAND – Thousands flocked to Jack London Square over the weekend to sample some of the Bay Area’s best craft food, specialty beer and coffee at the third annual Eat Real Festival.
Stalls lined the promenade, exuding tempting smells of sautéed vegetables and meats and simmering sauces. Merchants from Oakland and beyond offered products not readily available elsewhere, such as vegan Filipino dishes, artisanal dumplings, delicate macaroons, Japanese fried chicken, and artisanal popsicles.
Held each year by the Oakland-based nonprofit Food Craft Institute, the festival celebrates the Bay Area’s vast and unique artisanal culinary scene, said director Ally DeArman. Oakland has grown into a center for artisanal foods, DeArman said, making it the perfect location for both the festival and the institute’s headquarters.
“When we started Eat Real, we definitely had Oakland in mind because we knew Oakland has this do-it-yourself vibe,” DeArman said. “The people here want to know where their food comes from and how to make it themselves.”
In the past few years, Oakland craft food entrepreneurs have achieved national notoriety, DeArman said. Oakland-based craft coffee roaster Blue Bottle Coffee was bought this month by large Swiss food company Nestlé, which plans to open more cafes across the country.
Oakland-based Hodo Soy began selling tofu at farmers markets in 2004 and now sells thousands of restaurants across the country, including the Chipotle Mexican Grill grocery chain. Red Bottle Coffee, which hires inmates and shares its profits with employees, was named Small Business of the Year by the California Small Business Association in June.
Representatives from all three companies are working with the Food Craft Institute to educate other hopeful entrepreneurs about the craft food business.
The national artisanal food boom sparked around 2008 when books by authors like food writer Michael Pollan and documentaries like Food, Inc. became popular, DeArman said.
Craft businesses thrive in Oakland for a variety of reasons, DeArman said. One of them is the abundance of storage space.
“Oakland has a unique situation with a good mix of industrial and commercial space,” said DeArman. “(Craft Food Makers) can roast coffee and brew beer as well as have taprooms and sales stations.”
The space available gives artisan food manufacturers “the freedom and space to explore,” which is not a luxury in much of the Bay Area, DeArman said.
“It’s a lot denser in San Francisco; You may not be able to open a city farm somewhere or sell your eggs on the street corner, ”DeArman said. “A lot more flies fly in Oakland and you see a lot of people who are really establishing themselves here.”
Wendy Testu, who runs Oregon-based craft food company The Rogue Traders and has taken classes at the Food Craft Institute, said she lived in San Francisco for many years and believes there are more craft food companies in Oakland as well There are customers who are interested in kinds of products.
“I just think all the artists moved to Oakland,” Testu said.
Eric Szeto, who owns and operates the Shades of Sugar Bakeshop, said Oakland’s artisanal food manufacturers are very supportive and feed each other for business opportunities as well as recipes.
“What I love about Oakland’s food culture is that it’s a real sponsorship community,” said Szeto. “You get to know so many great people. and everyone here does the same thing as you. … There are people from different backgrounds who prepare all kinds of food, and everyone has their backs. “
Szeto said the help he received from the community while starting his business inspired him to do the same.
“I love giving back to Oakland what I deserve and supporting everyone,” said Szeto. “That’s why I work a lot with local farmers and shops and businesses, buy things from them and just try to keep everyone afloat.”
Mary Johnson from Vallejo and Erin Farrell from Alameda, who attended the festival on September 22, said they often look for Oakland craft food. Johnson said she appreciated Oakland’s artisanal food manufacturers’ emphasis on using local and organic ingredients and their passion for making quality products.
“It’s basically like a culture of its own,” said Johnson. “There’s a lot of love in food here; you can taste love. “