Two Oakland entrepreneurs share business
savvy and advice as they walk the lake
By Rachel Trachten | Photos by Robin Jolin
Oakland business owners Cassandra Gates and Elizabeth Vecchiarelli make a habit of circling Lake Merritt together to brainstorm and offer each other morale boosts. “I’ll talk for the first 30 minutes, and she’ll talk for the second 30 minutes,” says Broth Baby founder Gates, explaining the routine she’s developed with her friend, the owner of Preserved. “[We’ll talk] about hiring and managing people and business costs, and we’ll have this female download time of all our aches and pains as business owners.”
The two Philadelphia natives met in 2013, introduced by a mutual friend who noticed they were following similar paths. It was during one of their semimonthly lake walks that Vecchiarelli recalls cementing the vision for her shop and telling Gates, “I want to have a fridge and sell your bone broth.”
An umbrella of fermentation
Vecchiarelli built her food education working as a server and bartender in a wine, cheese, and beer bar in Philly. “I loved encouraging people to get to know about food and wine,” says the 34-year-old entrepreneur. During time spent working on an organic farm, she discovered Sandor Katz’s book Wild Fermentation. Through his writing she learned that fermentation applies not only to wine, beer, and cheese, but also to items like sourdough, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and tempeh.
“I hadn’t previously thought of all these foods as being under the same umbrella,” says Vecchiarelli. “I started experimenting immediately.”
Vecchiarelli moved to Portland in 2008, where she found someone teaching fermentation classes out of their home. She began hosting her own sauerkraut-making parties and hatching plans for a business. Eager to learn more about holistic nutrition and the health benefits of fermented foods, she headed to the Bay Area in 2012 to study at Berkeley’s Bauman College.
Matching a business model to her lifestyle
Vecchiarelli’s original plan—to open a café serving fermented foods—evolved as her lifestyle changed. “I was going out less,” she says. “I was cooking and rooting and homesteading more.” She decided to let her own experience inform her business efforts and switched her focus to creating a shop where she’d also teach fermentation workshops: “I want to foster the empowerment of making it yourself.” Vecchiarelli well understands the fear of botulism or other bacteria associated with canning or fermenting. “It’s nice to have a place where you can find community in that fear, and you can talk about the facts,” she says. As a teacher, she’s a natural—relaxed, engaging, and confident.
As she settled in the East Bay in early 2012, Vecchiarelli was surprised that it was hard to find the kinds of supplies she’d been getting easily in Portland: yogurt and cheese cultures, rennet for cheese making, a food mill, strainers, and a crock. She realized that her future shop should sell these types of supplies along with locally made preserved foods for those who lacked the time or inclination to make their own.
Hitting a wall, then building a shed
As she planned and strategized, Vecchiarelli realized she was hitting a wall because she didn’t have retail experience. An 11-week course at San Francisco’s Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center provided know-how in marketing, finance, and management along with help writing a comprehensive business plan. Networking with other students, especially chocolatier Brian Wallace of Endorfin Foods, was a highlight.
Vecchiarelli had also come to know Karen Anderson-Fort and Dana Olson, the owners of Neighbor, an Oakland home goods store. They shared their story, offered advice, and let Vecchiarelli learn by shadowing them. In December 2014, Vecchiarelli finished her course at the Renaissance Center and spent the holidays working at Neighbor. To her surprise, Anderson-Fort and Olson invited her to create a temporary shop in Neighbor’s backyard, where she could sell fermentation supplies and teach workshops. “What a fantastic opportunity to start small and gauge my market,” says Vecchiarelli.
With help from a few friends, she built a 100-square-foot cedar shed and opened for business in March 2015, starting on weekends only. The workshops quickly sold out. When she saw the potential, Vecchiarelli quit her two restaurant jobs and opened Preserved full time. Nine months later, she found a permanent space on Telegraph Avenue, where she sells fermentation and other DIY supplies, related books, and locally made foods. She also offers low-cost, hands-on workshops. The bone broth in her shop’s fridge? Well, it’s made by her friend Cassandra Gates, of course.
Bone broth kept coming up
The 28-year-old Gates makes her product about two miles from Vecchiarelli’s shop, in Oakland’s Uptown Kitchen. It’s prepared in two 40-gallon Groen steam kettles, which create an even heat like slow cookers. Water, chicken backs and feet—plus apple cider vinegar to leach more minerals from the bones—go in one kettle. The broth simmers for 16 hours, then is strained into the second kettle, into which organic carrots, onion, celery, leeks, shallots, and garlic, plus kombu (a seaweed) and salt are added and simmered for an additional hour.
Gates was taking a nutrition course taught by a naturopath in Philadelphia when she learned about Bauman College. Although she’d originally planned to do overseas aid work, she was so excited about Bauman’s holistic health curriculum that she moved across the country in March 2013. She got a job in the packing department at Three Stone Hearth, the Berkeley grocery known for its nutrient-dense prepared foods. Gates recalls lively lunchtime conversations there about fermentation, ancient cooking techniques, and historical diets. And, she says, “I kept hearing bone broth come up.” At Bauman, bone broth was frequently recommended for people with injuries and autoimmune illnesses. At Three Stone Hearth, some customers regularly drove an hour or more to purchase bone broth, an item that sold out each week.
Like a hug from mom
With a history of cooking at home and working in restaurants, Gates had the confidence to develop her own bone broth recipe. She filled her freezer with bags of chicken feet and started up the pot. She called on friends for tasting research, and when her mom asked how she knew if the flavor was right, she said, “It should taste like a hug from you … like when you’re sick and your mom made you chicken soup.” And so the product tagline was born: “Like a hug from your mother.”
Gates launched Broth Baby in January 2015, selling to friends and coworkers. Like Vecchiarelli, she’d learned about physiology and nutrition at Bauman but now needed to master the nuts and bolts of starting a business. She followed her friend’s lead to the business planning course at the Renaissance Center.
It was during this time that Gates lucked into the perfect business partner, Adam Fern. A mutual friend made the introduction, saying, “You guys are two pieces of the puzzle; you have to come together.” Gates describes Fern as a foodie who grew up in a New York Jewish family. He has a business and finance background, and (what are the odds?) was trying to start a bone broth business.
Recently, after working solo and then with one cook, Gates has hired more kitchen staff, enabling her to focus on growth, design, partnerships, and new flavors. Broth Baby currently offers pastured chicken and grass-fed beef options, which are made with bones sourced from Marin Sun Farms. A veggie broth and a pork broth are in the works. The products are sold online through Broth Baby’s website and Good Eggs, at Oakland’s Grand Lake Farmers’ Market, and in shops including Alameda Natural Grocery and Preserved. Although more stores would stock the broth if it were available frozen, Gates wants to make it fresh to order. Like Vecchiarelli, she has no debt and can afford to grow slowly and sustainably.
Women helping women
Gates has further shared her collaborative spirit by reaching out to other female entrepreneurs. She has assembled a group of chefs, chiropractors, acupuncturists, and healthy product makers—called the Holistic Women’s Network—who gather every six weeks to troubleshoot the members’ business-related questions. “We can all help each other rise,” says Gates. “Once you let go of the idea of competition, you realize that there’s room for all of us to find success.”
Gates and Vecchiarelli still take lake walks. “We continue to grow together,” says Gates. “It’s so nice to have that in a world where business can still feel very masculine. You can feel boxed out when you don’t come from a business world.” ♦
Edible East Bay’s associate editor Rachel Trachten writes about food, cooking, and gardens as tools for education and social change. She takes time out from magazine work for choral singing. View her stories at racheltrachten.contently.com and get in touch at rachel(at)edibleeastbay.com.
Robin Jolin is a film photographer based in Oakland who specializes in weddings, food, and portraiture. She balances work with swimming and quality time with her daughter. You can see her work at robinjolin.com.