OLD BRICKS NEW MORTAR: Food Cart Meets Landmark Restaurant
By Rhasaan Fernandez
with photos by Robin Jolin
This is the Bay Area—the great melting pot of our agrarian state and home to a unique metropolitan fondness for craft in the kitchen.
Rise and Fall of a Guerilla Marketing Concept
Early in 2010, I became a rogue street-food vendor, making and selling grilled fare. I sold directly to people on the streets, setting up at art events and festivities, such as the Oakland Art Murmur. The Art Murmur was a great testing ground for “the concept,” a mobile Italian-style food stall much like you might find in any plaza in Italy—think Sardinian street stall meets a grill in Parma. I remember driving from event to event, up to four a day, selling at them, then going back to a rented catering kitchen and prepping through the night. It was addicting. It was gritty and satisfying.
Recently the Art Murmur, once an experiment in what could happen if a few galleries had a monthly party, has begun to cannibalize itself. Business owners are complaining about the “hangover,” a nightmare cleanup in the wake of thousands of people partying in the streets. As one of several responses to the problem, unlicensed vendors (small-scale and startup businesses) have been pushed out of the event. I was amused to learn after a recent Behind the Cart dinner (see below) that Boffo Cart had been anointed as the favorite culprit hero of the Art Murmur. Now I go through the process of applying for permits and paying the regulatory fees and market stall rent. After all is said and done, it feels like just another day at the office.
Last year in June, with the decision to go legit, I set up “Boffo Cart” at the Kensington Farmers’ Market. Now we do four seasonal farmers markets and catering. The cart is a small operation with everything done manually, the hard way, like hand-mixing 50 pounds of flour with yeast and water. Watching it rise and change is beautiful. I’m buying produce directly from the people who grow it, becoming the conduit between the farmer and the person who eats that food, cooking with the seasons, fresh from the dirt. It is a good feeling to be the mediator between the raw beauty of fresh-farmed produce and an eater’s experience of simple refined flavor.
Sam’s Log Cabin
By way of luck and connectivity, I’ve also recently become a partner in a small restaurant that for 13 years has been a breakfast/lunch staple for the Albany community. It now also serves as the commercial prep facility for the Boffo Cart. The restaurant resides in a building that’s a curious feature on San Pablo Avenue in Albany—a redwood cabin built in 1939 from a Sears Roebuck catalog kit to function as a roadhouse on the historic Lincoln Highway (now San Pablo). It looks a little out of place these days, but it has served Albany for 72 years, from a sordid past as an underground bookie establishment where they had direct telegraph betting lines to the racetrack, to the days when customers at the long counter ate Asian-American food that incorporated bok choy grown out in the yard. While we seek to sign a 30-year lease, taking the place to its century mark, we are once again harvesting onsite, bringing in herbs and berries from the 2,400-square-foot yard.
The current business, dubbed Sam’s Log Cabin, was started by Scott and Carol Shumaker and named after their son Sam, who attends college in Boston and works at Sam’s on holidays home. We make traditional breakfast and lunch fare at affordable, local-friendly prices, using organic/cage-free eggs and Giusto’s organic flour. The farmers markets supply both restaurant and market cart with local produce. We cure our own meats. Bluegrass musicians play on the patio during Sunday brunch, and special food-focused events sometimes take place during the evenings when we’re closed. (Check out www.behindthecart.com. Behind the Cart is a multi-course meal prepared by rogue street vendors. The next one is August 14.) We encourage local foragers and gardeners to come in with their bounty as a part of our “League of Urban Eaters” program https://www.facebook.com/pages/League-of-Urban-Eaters/228163163862661 We host classes in cheese making, preserving, and butchery.
Sam’s is a place with honest food and gracious servers. Our goal is to make the world a better place, one pancake at a time.
During the week you can find Rhasaan cooking at Sam’s Log Cabin, 945 San Pablo (at Solano Ave), Albany. To contact the restaurant call 510.558.0494. For Boffo Cart Mobile Catering, call 510.326.8863 or email firstname.lastname@example.org Updates at facebook.
Oakland-based photographer Robin Jolin has a passion for fresh, sustainable food and has devoted much of her seven-year career to photographing this subject. In addition, she documents numerous restaurants and boutiques, focusing on capturing the atmosphere of these places and the creativity of the individuals responsible for creating the items in her viewfinder. www.robinjolin.com