Food and farming efforts offer
renewed hope to the community
BY SARAH HENRY
If only Richmond could overcome its reputation. Long viewed as one of the most violent places in the U.S., the gritty city saw its murder rate plummet in 2012. Still, this beleaguered community of some 103,000 reports unemployment hovering around 13 percent. Add to that an environment degraded by the city’s most prominent industry, the Chevron oil refinery. A year ago, Chevron experienced one of the worst explosions in its history, sending many residents to area hospitals with respiratory ailments.
Driving past Richmond’s dilapidated housing, vacant storefronts, and grungy fast-food joints, life can seem bleak. But a closer look reveals encouraging signs: a community produce plot here, a thriving school garden there. In a town that struggles with poor health measurements—a shocking 52 percent of Richmond children are overweight or obese—these are not insignificant developments. Nor was this West Contra Costa town’s battle at the ballot with Big Soda last November. Though unsuccessful, the proposed tax on sugar-sweetened drinks sparked debate around the country.
Gardeners know Richmond as a place to buy plants or “borrow” seeds from the library, and water watchers keep tabs on an oyster restoration project (see Side Dish in this issue). It’s also a city that encourages enterprising food companies, like small-batch roaster, Catahoula Coffee Company, popular with java junkies.
Headed up by co-op fan and Green Party Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Richmond is working hard to redefine itself as a city that nurtures its own. In two separate cooperative enterprises, Latina cooks prepare fresh, made-from-scratch meals in a community hungry for good food. The Liberty Ship Café, incubated by the California Center for Cooperative Development, provides local businesses, government office workers, and nonprofits with lunch items like chipotle chicken sandwiches, quinoa Inca salad, and beef empanadas. Earlier this year, the seven members of Fusion Latina Cooperative, which cooks out of Richmond’s communal Artisan Kitchen, launched a culturally rich menu that includes nopales salad, tinga de pollo (chicken in chipotle-tomato sauce), and roasted pork with achiote marinade.
It’s tempting to view these encouraging developments as the new reality, and yet real life often intervenes: On the day before this reporter interviewed urban gardeners in the Iron Triangle, a part of town that has seen more than its share of troubles, another young man was killed on its streets. And yet, there are signs of renewed hope all around Richmond—from a former addict supervising an oven full of baking chocolate cakes at a small food manufacturing plant to a young urban farmer tending beds full of abundant greens at Richmond High School’s produce garden.
Amid all the bad news there is good, too. Richmond is rising.
BAKERY OF SECOND CHANCES
Like all Rubicon Bakery’s employees, Sheila Young-Eberhart has overcome hard times. A Richmond resident, Young-Eberhart is Rubicon’s quality assurance manager. It’s her job to ensure that employees follow health practices, such as keeping stray locks tucked under hairnets. And she checks the taste and appearance of products like carrot cake whoopies, lemon tarts, and cinnamon bread before they go out to Whole Foods, Andronico’s, and other grocery stores. Young-Eberhart is a Rubicon success story: She started off labeling packages of marshmallows and worked her way up to a supervisory position. But prior to getting hired by Rubicon five years ago, she’d been a drug addict for years and done time in jail.
Not exactly management material in many bosses’ minds. But Rubicon is the bakery of second chances: Almost all the company’s employees have experienced some mix of addiction, homelessness, and incarceration. “Never in a million years did I think I’d end up being a manager of anything, I was just grateful Rubicon gave me a job when others wouldn’t,” says Young-Eberhart, 55, fresh from checking on a batch of chocolate mousse cakes. “It’s so empowering to have a job, to be a productive member of society. It’s an honor to come to work.”
The wholesale bakery, founded in 1993 by the nonprofit Rubicon Programs, was set up as a job-training service, a business with a social conscience that gave the hardest-to-employ a chance to turn their lives around. Up until three years ago, the bakery was just scraping by with 14 part-time staff and a bare-bones budget. It was losing money and needed major equipment maintenance and upgrading.
But then Andrew Stoloff stepped in. A finance guy turned restaurateur (owner of Red Tractor Café in Dublin and the Red Tractor formerly in Rockridge), Stoloff was initially called on for ideas on how to stem the bakery’s financial losses. Reimagining the bakery as a for-profit enterprise, he ended up buying the business. Rubicon, which prides itself on scratch-made, hand-finished baked goods using all natural ingredients, has been flourishing ever since.
It’s been an impressive turnaround in a short period of time: The business has grown to about 100 full-time employees, and revenues have risen 400 percent in the same three-year period. It’s been good for Rubicon Programs, too, which helps low-income residents and those with mental health concerns with housing, job training, and other services. The deal that Stoloff struck with Rubicon Programs maintains that a portion of the bakery’s profits each year goes back to the nonprofit. In the past two years that’s totaled $70,000, a chunk of change that’s more than the bakery ever made as a nonprofit.
On any given day, employees can be found mixing batter, monitoring ovens, maintaining equipment, and packaging products—all while the smell of baking brownies wafts through the building. There’s an air of calm focus; employees clearly work hard and take pride in, say, frosting a cake quickly and well. The workers seem content and also to genuinely like each other. Rubicon has regular staff lunches, where members of the team cook for everyone. No one can survive on cake alone. “It’s like we’re one big family here,” says Young-Eberhart.
Like many Berkeley residents, Stoloff hadn’t spent any time in Richmond before buying the bakery. Now he often rides his bike to work, and it’s clear that this Wharton MBA and former New York investment banker has a soft spot when it comes to his staff. Many employees come through Rubicon Programs, but some just show up at the door asking for work. “These employees are so grateful for the opportunity. They’re very loyal,” says Stoloff. “For many of them it’s the first time in their lives that someone has had faith in them. We’ve had only a few workers who we let go because they weren’t quite ready to turn their lives around.” Rubicon offers on-the-job training, benefits, including vacation and sick days, health care, and even no-interest emergency loans for life’s unexpected events. “This is a heart and soul business,” says Stoloff, “we make a great product and good profits, but it’s also tremendously rewarding watching these employees transform their lives.”
SOW SEEDS OF CHANGE
In 2007, during a tough time in her family’s life, Tania Pulido, the child of working class immigrants, stumbled into an after-school class on urban agriculture put on by the nonprofit Urban Tilth. Then a recent Richmond High School graduate, Pulido’s dad had been laid off, the family home was in foreclosure, and she was despondent about her prospects. But at that after-school class, the soft-spoken Pulido had an epiphany: Growing food could create community and lasting change.
She began volunteering with the organization. Her parents, who risked coming to the U.S. for a better life for their children, at first didn’t understand her new passion for urban gardening, growing food, and educating youth about the benefits of eating fresh produce. No matter. Pulido persevered. “I just had a strong sense that food was the way to connect with people around all the things that are wrong in Richmond,” she says. “I knew this work could make changes that benefit people here.”
Pulido, who tends the city’s Greenway Gardens in the Iron Triangle, joined Urban Tilth as an apprentice in 2009. “Residents are so grateful for what we’re doing in the city, making something that was ugly beautiful,” she says. “We earn their trust just by showing up and doing what we do.”
In 2011, Pulido won a Brower Youth Award from the Earth Island Institute for youth activism and leadership. She recalls teaching gardening to children at Lincoln Elementary School (across the street from Greenway Gardens), where one child wanted to name his plant “Taki” after the popular Mexican fast-food snack chips, Takis. “It was both funny and sad,” says Pulido, a UC Berkeley peace and conflict studies student. “Many of these kids have no idea where their food comes from.”
Community garden nonprofit Urban Tilth is run by Doria Robinson, a lifelong Richmond resident and third-generation Richmond dweller, who once went to India with the idea of becoming a Buddhist nun. Long story short, she returned to serve her community instead. Where some see a food desert and a lack of resources, Robinson, a member of the city’s Food Policy Council, sees an opportunity to create resilience and respond to need, whether that’s an urge to connect with nature or a desire for fresh food. Urban Tilth supports some 10 school gardens and community farms throughout the city. In 2011, Urban Tilth farms grew over 10,000 pounds of food. The nonprofit has plans for a sliding-scale community-supported agriculture program, slated to start this August, and a new farm stand in North Richmond is projected to launch in Spring 2014.
Across town, Pulido’s partner, Cal alum Adam Boisvert, teaches produce gardening to a predominantly Latino Richmond High School population who, he says, can’t wait for camp-stove Fridays, when they cook up greens they’ve grown in the garden to eat with whole grains like rice and quinoa. “The students love coming outside, getting their hands in the dirt, and eating what they grow. They’re fiendishly hungry for this kind of experience.”
A third Urban Tilth location, Verde Elementary School Partnership Garden in North Richmond is an expansive hub of row crops, fruit trees, and ornamental flowers. This plot, in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, has been tended since 1991 by garden co-founder Bienvenida Mesa, a local resident whose own children attended the school. These days, Mesa gets some help from Jessie Alberto, who also manages nearby AdamsCrest Farm. In an area blighted by poverty, drugs, and crime, the garden serves as both a sanctuary and a place to learn for many students. The garden is dotted with flowers, butterflies, and birds, along with produce. “Some of these kids think vegetables come from Safeway; the first time they’ve seen a potato in the ground is in this garden,” explains Mesa. “Connecting to nature makes these kids happy, you can see it in their faces.”
There’s room for all comers at the two-thirds-of-an-acre site that includes community plots. For instance, there’s a space in the large garden for crops tended by Southeast Asian Laotians, who plant a taro patch and beds that contain basil, chiles, and bitter greens, along with traditional medicinal plants.
When the recess bell rings, Mesa is ready for snack seekers in search of something freshly picked to eat, perhaps a strawberry, apple, or carrot. “They come running in here for a piece of fruit and then they wander around to see life evolving in their garden,” says Mesa. “Some of these kids have hard family lives or trouble sitting still in school. This is a peaceful place where they can move and get their hands in the soil. And it’s full of hope.” ♣
Fusion Latina Cooperative: 510.730.6072,
Facebook: Fusion Latina Restaurant & Catering Service
Liberty Ship Café: 510.932.6345, order(at)libertyshipcafe.coop, libertyshipcafe.coop
Rubicon Bakery: 154 S 23rd St; 510.779.3010, rubiconbakery.com
Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library: Richmond Public Library,
325 Civic Center Plaza; 510.620.6559, richmondgrowseeds.org
Urban Tilth: 401 1st St, Richmond; 510.778.5886, urbantilth.org
Richard Mazzera, a former roadie (he claims Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt among his friends) and one-time maître d’ to L.A. celebrities, may well be the guy for the gig at the new Assemble Restaurant, located in the redeveloped Ford Assembly Plant complex on Richmond’s waterfront. Owned by Orton Entertainment, which also owns the adjacent venue space Craneway Pavilion, Assemble opened its doors to diners in late February. It’s a hidden gem of a location with killer views. The Richmond marina, which includes the Bay Trail, is popular with bikers and walkers. And, while close, it feels a world away from central Richmond and its concerns.
In the works for Assemble: casual outdoor dining, a raw bar, and an outdoor kitchen. Currently, restaurant staff cater everything from rocking events to spiritual symposiums at the Craneway, and Mazzera is cooking up a plan to host a formal dinner-dance gala with a big band at the Craneway for New Year’s Eve. His favorite event there: The women’s flat-track roller derby.
But back to the restaurant next door: Assemble took over the space formerly occupied by the BoilerHouse, which never really gathered much steam. Mazzera hopes to change that. The restaurant location, which has an industrial chic vibe, is steeped in history. A car factory during peacetime, the plant was converted during wartime to a tank depot where military vehicles were equipped before shipment.
The area played a significant role during World War II: History buffs should plan to stop by the Rosie the Riveter Museum across from the restaurant before or after lunch to get the scoop. The World War II Home Front National Historical Park offers well-curated exhibits, including one on Victory Gardens and the role of women and minorities during the war effort. Insider tip: A group of Rosie’s Girls serve as docents on Fridays (and then have lunch next door), according to the restaurateur. National Park Service ranger, Betty Reid Soskin, 91, offers both personal experience and historical perspective on the experience of female black workers in Richmond in the 1940s; she served as a file clerk in a Jim Crow union hall at the shipyards.
Mazzera also manages César, the Spanish-style tapas restaurant in Berkeley, and runs Assemble with his wife, Terumi Shibata, who left her job as GM at the Florentine-focused Trattoria Corso, also in Berkeley, to take on the new project. The pair met at Berkeley’s Downtown Restaurant, and were married six years ago. Wavy Gravy, toting a didgeridoo, served as the celebrant in their Berkeley Hills home.
In an example of six degrees of Chez Panisse, Mazzera once worked at Alice Waters’s restaurant. So it’s not surprising then that he’s developing a victory garden in front of Assemble intended to supply produce for his kitchen and function as an Edible Schoolyard–like site for Richmond schools. It’s a nice nod to the area’s past and brings the project full circle.
What about the food? With former César chef Maggie Pond recently ensconced at the top, the Assemble team serves updated working-class American fare befitting the area’s roots: what they call a New American menu, with a regional focus and an emphasis on seafood. Think New Orleans gumbo; buttermilk fried chicken; and Dungeness crab and shrimp Louis for dinner. Back by popular demand from the BoilerHouse, and tweaked a tad for lunch, are the Cobb salad and fish & chips. Despite early, pre-Pond mixed reviews, the restaurant does a brisk trade at lunch. The food needs to step it up a notch to match the surroundings, in which case Richmond could have a dining spot worthy of a night out for dinner.
Assemble Restaurant: 1414 Harbour Way South, Richmond
Above: Restaurateur Richard Mazzera’s latest venture, Assemble, features old factory machinery to dramatic effect as part of the new restaurant’s decor. Right: The restaurant menu offers American comfort fare, like potpies, with a modern spin. (Photos by Robin Jolin)