By Cheryl Angelina Koehler | Photos by Robin Jolin
Thirty years ago, people didn’t photograph their meals—probably because they didn’t have cell phones. Most menus—except perhaps at Chez Panisse—didn’t list where the food came from. Culinary school training was not required to get a nice job in the business, and tattoos might indicate someone had spent more time in prison than in the kitchen.
But, in fact, that world was changing quickly when Market Hall opened in 1987 on Oakland’s College Avenue, catty-corner from the Rockridge BART station.
And in that moment, Sara Wilson was finding herself in a sweet spot.
“In the eighties everybody was getting into food, but few of us had much experience,” says Wilson, who founded Market Hall in partnership with her bothers Tony and Peter Wilson. “Someone told us about a friend who was in the music business and wanted to open a wine shop. That was Paul Marcus. He and Oliveto were our first tenants.”
Lack of experience mattered less than interest and desire to do something exciting in a field that was just waking up from a dark period, when modern “convenience” foods had spawned the idea that cooking
“Shoppers still wanted convenience foods, but we wanted real groceries,” says Wilson.
Transformation of a Neighborhood
On a beautiful late-summer morning in 2017, I’m out in front of Market Hall talking to longtime Rockridge resident Deborah Layton. We’re looking through a photo gallery on Layton’s phone of Highwire Coffee Roasters cappuccino artistry as Layton’s dog Pretzel watches expectantly for an approaching canine friend. The dog arrives soon along with owners Tony and Golden DeBone, an older couple who have lived in Rockridge since 1970. Tony remembers the corner of College and Keith as a seasonal Christmas tree lot and pumpkin patch, with the line of buildings across the street housing sweatshops. At that time, Italian-American families still predominated in the neighborhood, growing tomatoes, grapes, figs, eggplants, and herbs in huge kitchen gardens outside their craftsman bungalows. Some made wine in their basements.
“The neighborhood has been very fortunate,” says Tony DeBone, who doesn’t seem to miss the good old days. “The Wilsons were very sensitive and made sure they didn’t overstep.”
It was Sara Wilson’s brother Tony—a lawyer looking for a way out of that high-pressure profession—who saw the potential of the corner, which in the early 1980s had served as a BART construction staging site. “We had some strong opposition to our project, even in this neighborhood that had been so negatively impacted by the BART construction,” says Sara. But they persisted. Sara describes brother Tony as a builder by nature, who along with brother Peter, an architect then working in New York City, envisioned “an open-air structure where people would enter and stay.” The siblings formed the partnership that would transform the neighborhood.
Roberta Klugman, a local food and wine consultant and longtime shopper at Market Hall, who regularly shares business ideas with Sara Wilson, describes how Tony’s vision for the structure effectively created a “third place,” that comfortable zone beyond home and work where people in the neighborhood could come, perhaps daily, not just for groceries, but also to relax and meet up with friends, as the DeBones and Layton do each morning with their dogs. The design encourages shoppers to circulate both through and around the individual shops, allowing merchants to show off their displays from every angle. Even at the busiest of times, no one has to get marooned in an aisle behind a huge shopping cart, and although a few carts sit outside the produce market for customer use, it’s understood that this is a place to come daily for fresh ingredients rather than to load up
A Culture of Craftsmanship
The Wilsons were happy to lure independent merchants like Paul Marcus and Bob and Maggie Klein (of the highly respected Italian-focused Oliveto Restaurant and Cafe) to set up within the hall, but they were just as interested in attracting individuals who would contribute to the culture of craftsmanship they wanted to create.
“We were looking for the baker, not the business model,” says Sara.
The baker they found was Glenn Mitchell, who had been working at a Nob Hill hotel before he came to Market Hall to start Grace Baking with his wife Cindy. “They made everything downstairs in our tiny space: breads, pastries, desserts, cookies,” says Sara. (The Mitchells sold Grace Baking 20 years ago.) Enzo Polacco of Enzo’s Meat & Poultry, formerly a butcher in Australia, became the Hall’s entertaining butcher, and Allen Kuehn, formerly a cook at Narsai’s, launched the market’s fish shop. When Kuehn later moved his company to the San Francisco Ferry Building in 2004, the Wilsons created a new iteration of the fish shop, naming it Hapuku after a wild species that dominates the fishing industry of the Wilson’s native New Zealand.
Sara says they were especially excited about a little place called The Pasta Shop, where Marlene Cowan and Shirley Knight were making fresh pasta just to the north of the BART station. “We were in love with the company. They made things, and we were interested in hands-on.”
However, on extending an invitation to Cowan and Knight to move into Market Hall, the Wilsons learned that the duo were burned out and wanted to quit, so instead they bought the business and moved it into the Hall, eventually recruiting Ettore Lambrugo, a highly experienced fresh pasta maker from Northern Italy, to run the operation. In the emptied space up the street they started Cactus Taquería, which they modeled on the SF Mission District dives Sara used to frequent with her “Peruvian boyfriend” (now husband Gustavo). Sara describes Cactus as essentially the first of its genre in the East Bay.
Roberta Klugman portrays the Bay Area food scene in the late 1980s as a web of friendly competition, where the field’s professionals circulated in and out of local food businesses looking for the best opportunities for offering and building their skills. She was pleased to see Linda Sikorski, now a senior buyer, and Scott Miller, who now manages the kitchen, land at Market Hall. She suspects the high rate of senior staff retention is testament to the emphasis on education, which has meant ongoing pilgrimages overseas for study of both traditional foodways and the evolving world of retailing and artisanal crafting.
Striving for Quality
The search for consistent high quality has required the Wilsons to stay nimble, and has often meant developing unique relationships with individual producers and importers. Prime examples are the deep partnerships forged with two import businesses founded in Rockridge, whose products win consistently high praise from chefs and retailers nationally. Those are Kitty Keller, an importer of high-quality pantry items from France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, and Manicaretti, whose founder Rolando Beramendi sources from artisan producers throughout Italy. Beramendi’s book, Autentico: Cooking Italian, the Authentic Way, was just released this October by publisher St. Martin’s Griffin.
Significant careers have been launched at Market Hall, among them that of Juliana Uruburu, who was in high school in 1987 when she first started working at the cheese counter, then left for college but got drawn back in. Thirty years later, she is widely respected in the worldwide cheese community. She teaches at the Cheese School of San Francisco and has earned membership in the ancient French Guilde des Fromagers.
Extra-virgin olive oil has been of particular importance at Market Hall, and Sara Wilson goes so far as to describe it as “a huge organizing principle.”
“Tony and I fell in love with good olive oil in the 1980s. A friend of Peter’s was one of the first to bring seedlings over from Tuscany. We helped him plant them on his land in Sonoma.” She describes the special passion they felt in the 1989 season when she, Tony, Juliana, and Sandy Sonnenfelt (now the company’s prepared foods and pasta director) went to Yuba County to help harvest and crush olives in Michael Henwood’s homemade olive press.
In that same year the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) was formed, and Tony was on the first tasting panel. Sandy Sonnenfelt has become deeply and professionally involved as a member of the COOC’s official tasting panel: Any organization in California judging extra-virgin olive oil for excellence wants Sandy on their panel. In the 30 years since Market Hall came to be, production of California extra-virgin olive oil has exploded, due both to development of planting and harvest processes and to heightening awareness of the pleasures and health values of the product. “Our customers have contributed to that success,” says Sara.
Rockridge Market Hall and Me
This story intersects with this writer’s personal food history, so please enjoy this indulgence:
I first met Sara Wilson in the early 1980s when she was working as a performing arts consultant. I remember seeing her at the front desk of the Margaret Jenkins dance studio in San Francisco’s Mission District, where I often attended classes. We both recall enjoying similar cheap dinners out at the District’s many taquerias.
The year Market Hall opened, my dance activities were centered at a tiny Rockridge studio on Hudson Street called Danspace. Before driving back to my home in East Oakland each night, I would head over to Market Hall to procure inspiration and ingredients for dinner.
As an ardent home cook who had grown up under the influence of Italian relatives, I found at Market Hall all the things I most wanted: crusty baguettes; funky dried mushrooms; hand-cut cheeses; quality pasta, rice, and beans; and exotic spices and baking ingredients. The fish market could sell me a whole fresh trout to cook the way I had learned in France, and the butcher could sell bones for making stock. There were always good-but-cheap bottles of French wine in the “value” section at Paul Marcus Wines, and I loved chatting with the staff, who all led dual lives as artists, actors, and musicians. On leaving for home, I always thought: Wouldn’t it be so much better to live right here in this neighborhood?
Ditching an evil junk Volvo that was sucking away dollars on repairs and swapping rented office space for home workspaces made the move to Rockridge possible, but it required buckling down to boost our earnings. The extra stress was offset by the enhanced quality of life in a walkable neighborhood . . . at least until it wasn’t. By the late 1990s, my “wusband” and I started joking that it might be better to drop what we were doing and go get jobs at Market Hall.
One day Mark actually did that. He buttonholed Paul Marcus and asked, “What kind of people do you hire here at your wine shop?” Paul’s reply, “Guys like you,” launched Mark’s new career as he educated himself as a wine clerk and then became one of the globe-trotting reps that sells wines to Paul Marcus Wines.
In 2004, I learned that Sara Wilson was looking for help with a new broadsheet called the Market Hall News, and that keyed right in with my shining dream of becoming a full-time food and travel writer. During the two years I wrote and edited (and eventually designed and photographed for) the Market Hall News, I kept trying to turn the simple four-page newsletter into a food magazine. I think Sara was relieved when I found a more appropriate venue in 2005 by starting Edible East Bay. The hours of hanging out in Sara Wilson’s bright office above Cactus Taquería and dragging out of her so much information on what makes up a world-class food market have been of great value to my perspective as a food editor and publisher.
Where We Shop
I’ve always been fascinated by the many different approaches people take to their food shopping. Personally, I prefer to patronize whichever farmers’ market or independent grocer is within walking distance of my home. When I watch the growth of online retailing, I wonder about what is lost by not going to that “third place” and thus missing out on those conversations with neighbors or merely watching the local dance of life.
When I ask Sara how online retailing at MarketHallFoods.com is developing, she says that a surprisingly large number of those purchases are made by people living nearby who also come to the store. “Some might need deliveries,” says Sara. “One customer called to say his parents had shopped here ever since we opened, but now they are in their 90s and can’t make it in.” That tale got around to Sandy Sonnenfelt’s husband Stuart, prompting him to come up with a concept he eponymously dubbed Stuber—a service he could personally provide to get the food to these older shoppers. “Nothing has really progressed with that idea,” says Sandy, “but Stuart—as Stuber—does indeed drive one of our neighbors there for shopping on a weekly basis.” ♦