After two years at the helm of Oakland's Pop-Up General Store, Samin Nosrat announced she is shutting down at the end of the year. "Some people thought we'd keep going forever, but this narrative needed an ending," she said.
Nosrat, sous chef at Eccolo before it closed in August 2009, started the monthly market with Eccolo executive chef Christopher Lee. It was a simple venture, a way for the former colleagues to keep cooking together. At the first pop-up event, in December 2009, they sold 46 cassoulets and over one hundred pounds of boudin sausage. Nosrat and Lee were the only cooks, and the customers were mostly their buddies.
When Lee left town to pursue projects in New York and London, Nosrat was left minding the store. Held at the Grace Street Catering headquarters in North Oakland, a former streetcar depot, the Pop-Up General Store quickly blew up. Nosrat took on other cooks and food artisans to help diffuse the burden; soon enough, it was a full-on food marketplace.
Over the months, her role evolved from head chef to curator. She culled a talented pool of food purveyors, many of whom would reach high levels of success outside the market. Starter Bakery's impossibly rich cult favorite kouign amann (the Express' Best Breakfast Pastry of 2011) was first sold at the Pop-Up General Store.
"I mean, it's not like I'm some crazy treasure hunter; anyone in their right mind would have promoted the kouign ammann," Nosrat said. "It's just amazing how many businesses that started with us went on to be successful."
Unlike, say, San Francisco's Underground Farmers' Market (which was shut down by the Board of Health earlier this year), the Pop-Up General Store always stayed within the letter of the law. Nosrat ensured that her vendors adhered to health codes and that sales tax was paid, plus she managed all the market's un-fun bureaucracy.
And therein lies the problem: There's nothing like paperwork and balancing books to sap someone's passion. After a couple of years, Nosrat started to feel less like a curator and more like an office manager. Not to mention the pesky little issue of money.
The prices were notorious at the Pop-Up General Store, one of Nosrat's biggest regrets. She said it's embarrassing to run a prohibitively expensive market in a low-income neighborhood. Still, there's often a low profit margin on handmade foodstuffs, especially when you operate legally. "It's not like we were going home and taking baths in hundred-dollar bills," she said. "I never made a dollar in profit."
December 14 will be the last Pop-Up General Store. But never you fret: After it closes, Nosrat will keep herself busy. She just got back from an outreach trip to China with Alice Waters, author Amy Tan, filmmaker Joel Coen, and a handful of other glitterati. She runs an after-hours pop-up dinner at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. And she'd like to do more of the teaching and writing she's dabbled in since Eccolo closed.
Nosrat would also love to help people start their own versions of the Pop-Up General Store. Just don't ask to use her brand, or her ten-thousand-person mailing list. "We worked really hard to build trust and develop a loyal customer base," Nosrat said. "I wouldn't feel comfortable giving it up to someone else."
Plum Bar Sells Seats
Plum Bar, the newest leg of Daniel Patterson's ballooning empire, opened on the auspicious day of 11/11/11, all but guaranteeing an inside track on success, happiness, and a lifetime of big tippers. But in case the luck of the elevens wasn't enough, Patterson crafted a safety net.
In this new venture into microfinance, any Joe Schmo can buy a stake in Plum Bar for only $500. Dubbed "seatholders," these plucky investors then get 20 percent off their Plum/Plum Bar bills for the rest of their lives. They also receive as-yet-unnamed special perks and event invitations (champagne room, pony rides, etc.).
Seatholders even get their own stately crest, with maxims like "Have a Sense of Propriety" and "Foster a Shared Ethos" encircling a chair silhouette. It resembles a Freemasons logo, or a vintage union labor poster.
The program is modeled after Scott Kester's crowd-sourcing scheme to open The Elevens, a New York bar/restaurant that Patterson consulted on. Kester is looking to enlist two thousand seatholders in advance of his spring opening. It's like Kickstarter with a million-dollar target.
Plum Bar's goals are more modest. Patterson said he's looking for four to five hundred seatholders in the next couple of months; so far there are about thirty. He's confident that once he starts "pounding the doors of all [his] restaurant friends," the venture will snowball.
"In this economy even high-wealth investors are risk-averse," Patterson said, "but our program makes the buy-in too low to resist."
The seatholder capital will be used to shore up Plum Bar's financial base. More importantly, Patterson hopes it will encourage other restaurateurs to adopt the model. "Restaurant people can be very traditional, wary of change," he said. "I'm hoping to produce a new sacrament here."
Reach for the stars, you crazy dreamer.