No Grocery Store? No Problem!

 

Parker (left) and Kramer Collins get the pop-up market ready for customers.

 

Port Costa’s Port Perks pop-up market fills the bill
… at least for now

 

By any description, the tiny town of Port Costa, California, (pop. 186) is a unique spot in the largely urban East Bay. Two narrow, winding roads lead into the canyon where the town huddles at the now-defunct port. It was a hopping place 100 years ago—an era when most goods moved around the continent by rail and water—but today, the closest grocery store is 20 minutes away in Martinez, and the town’s two bars and three eateries all had to close when the pandemic lockdown began on March 17.

Still, the population boasts quite a few food professionals, thanks to the famed Bull Valley Roadhouse. Among those creatives is small-batch sorbet maker Kramer Collins. On finding himself sheltering in port in March, Collins realized he could help get good food into town for his neighbors. The result was a popup dubbed Port Perks Market. Here’s how Kramer Collins tells the story.

Before the pandemic, I was making sorbet in the Bull Valley kitchen on Mondays and Tuesdays when the restaurant was closed. The sorbets were on their menu, and the Wednesday night Dram Shop served as an opportunity to debut new flavors and try out new concepts. One or two nights a week, I would pop up at Tacos Oscar in Oakland and sell my sorbets out of a cart I made. I had a popup scheduled for March 17 with my friend Robin Crossman, who owns Crossman Meats in Oakland, but that was canceled last minute, and everything has changed dramatically since then.

I had wanted to run a small, locally sourced market for a number of years after being inspired by an incredible neighborhood market in Ukiah. When it seemed like we would be sheltering in place for a while, I realized I would need something else to do with my time because sorbet popups weren’t an option. I read an article about a restaurant in Atlanta: how they had turned their space into a drive-thru grocery store for the neighborhood. I’ve always loved the idea of a CSA box but disliked the “what you get is what you get” reality of the model, so I wanted to create some hybrid, where everyone can choose the contents of the box.

I bought a case of Brokaw Ranch avocados to test the waters and offered them for sale in town one afternoon. They were gone in an hour and a half, so I knew this town had an appetite for tasty produce—and was willing to pay for it.

My good friend and next-door neighbor Ian Soroka, who is much more technologically savvy than I am, helped me design a very simple order form in Google Forms. Our members fill out the form every week, and I use that data to order from our providers. Some veggies, fruit, and mushrooms are from Earl’s Organic Produce distribution. We get lots of amazing veggies from Riverdog Farm. The avocados, tangerines, and passionfruit come from Brokaw. The eggs come from Kaki Farm. The cheese and pantry items come from Bi-Rite.

My brother, Parker—also my next-door neighbor—and I set up the market every Tuesday and Friday in the Bull Valley courtyard next to the restaurant. For a while, BVR co-owner Samuel Spurrier helped fill boxes and direct traffic, and Burlington Hotel manager Hillary Kantmann helped out at the open market, where folks from town can just buy things on the fly like they do at a farmers’ market stand. The market has more or less stayed the same since May, although it has been just my brother helping these days.

A scoop of Quintessence Pistachio Sorbet

Once Bull Valley requires their walk-in cooler again, the market may cease to exist, but this country is in a pretty awkward and hasty re-opening phase that I suspect is going to be just as hastily reined back in, so it’s anybody’s guess when restaurants will return to normal. A few of my neighbors here who frequent the market the most have asked if Port Perks will continue even after the pandemic is over. I imagine there are a lot of new routines people have adopted that will linger even in the absence of Covid-19, and having a closer connection with food is something people seem to really value. I am definitely interested in reimagining what our food system looks like and how it functions, so I suppose the market will continue in some way, but how and where we’ll only know when it’s time to move on. In the meantime, we just do what we can in this moment.

And that Sorbet?

I sell a small amount of my sorbet to neighbors at the Port Perks Market, and I’ve offered contactless deliveries to customers from Port Costa to Oakland and back. With the help of my endlessly patient partner and love of my life, Aryana Gauder, I was able to deliver 50 boxes of sorbet in two days. It was a marathon, but I had a lot of fun. I also have a few friends who own restaurants in Oakland who offered to be pick-up hubs for sorbet. Friends and Family Bar in uptown Oakland has been super helpful as a hub; I love those folks. I am absolutely blown away by the resilience of our Bay Area foodshed and happy to do my small part to keep it flourishing in these unstable times. ♦

@quintessencesorbet