That there's nowhere to shop in Oakland is a common gripe with at least a grain of truth to it. Ever try to buy a head of lettuce near the Coliseum or furnish an apartment without leaving the city limits? Established commercial districts notwithstanding, Oakland has long struggled to convince its residents to spend money within its borders.
"We used to have a lot of department stores selling general goods," said Keira Williams, a retail specialist with the Oakland Community and Economic Development Agency. "But it all migrated. Now we leak a lot of money, and Oakland residents spend money on those goods elsewhere." In fact, a 2008 city-commissioned retail enhancement plan notes that the municipality loses about $1 billion a year in retail sales — and $10 million in sales tax — to its neighbors.
So the city is hoping that the transformation of city-owned properties in underserved areas into "neighborhood retail districts" will help stem the outflow of Oaklanders' consumer spending. This fall, the city issued a call for proposals for ten sites located in redevelopment areas, with a number of parcels located near the Coliseum and in East Oakland, on a southern stretch of Foothill Boulevard between Fruitvale and 73rd Street. The agency is currently evaluating thirteen proposals — mixed-use developments that include retail on the ground floors — for seven of those properties. Final recommendations will be made to the city council before the end of March.
One proposal involves a boutique hotel, housing, parking, and office space for a site near the Fox Theater. Meanwhile, a project submitted by the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation for a property in East Oakland would result in senior housing atop retail, such as a pharmacy.
"Some of these projects will change dramatically the physical, aesthetic, and economic environment of these neighborhoods and some will bring the necessary amenities a neighborhood needs," said City Councilmember Desley Brooks, who helped the redevelopment agency select three of the retail sites in her East Oakland district. "Hopefully, we will be able to attract more development and restore the commercial corridors in the neighborhoods because you can't just have one part of town having all amenities and all the others lacking these things."
New shops and storefronts could be a boon to residents, but whether they'll be a dynamic catalyst for Oakland's overall neighborhood redevelopment efforts remains to be seen. "Retail is a really, really tricky thing to do well, especially right now," said Karen Chapple, an associate professor of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. "And it's a chicken-or-egg question: If you bring in retail, will it revitalize a neighborhood, or is retail more likely to come if the people are already there? One of the things we've found [in our research] is that the retailers were following people, so it can be harder to lead with the retail to make changes to a neighborhood."
"A lot of thought went into the retail plan, and it is an impressive first step," said Chapple, who reviewed the document at the request of Buy Curious. "So then how do you go to the next step without falling into the old patterns of 'let's grab any old developer who might be interested and give away the store,' so to speak?"
Retail Tour: Chocolatiers
Seems you can't walk more than a few blocks in some East Bay neighborhoods nowadays without being enticed into a specialty chocolate shop. Perhaps it's no surprise — they say that confections are recession-proof, and chocolates of the artisanal variety are projected to reach $4.5 billion in sales in 2011. Beyond chocolate's eternal appeal, we also happen to be in the midst of the "second American chocolate renaissance," according to Chuck Siegel, founder of Charles Chocolates (6529 Hollis St., Emeryville; CharlesChocolates.com).
"With this new crop of confectioners, you're seeing dedication to the art of chocolate," Siegel said. "You're seeing fresh Straus cream, fresh herbs, and real fruit instead of flavor compounds. And you're seeing much more attention to how the product is presented than ever before."
Known for crafting handsome squares of dark chocolate and toothsome caramels, Siegel has been working with Picán (2295 Broadway, Oakland; PicanRestaurant.com) to produce truffles flavored with the small-batch Kentucky bourbons found on the Southern restaurant's extensive bar list; they will be available starting in February.
Wendy and Susan Lieu, the sisters behind Socola Chocolates (available at Daily Delectables, 3249 Grand Ave., Oakland; SocolaChocolates.com), have also found a winning combination in the booze-chocolate combo. Socola's Beer and Bacon Truffle Set includes its popular Guinness-infused truffle and a chocolate that's been dubbed "notorious H.O.G." because it's made with Niman Ranch applewood-smoked bacon and a pinch of black Hawaiian sea salt. The Lieus are also keen to reference their travels and Southeast-Asian heritage with truffle flavors such as Give It To Me Guava, Ca Phe Sua (Vietnamese espresso), and Tamarind Black Sesame. The sisters started making truffles as teenagers, selling them outside of their parent's Santa Rosa nail salon as part of a summer farmers' market, and they sound downright giddy over how much their business has grown. "It's a space to be creative, we get flavors from our family and life experiences, and we come up with ideas by saying, 'Wouldn't it be cool, if ... ?'" Susan said.
Barlovento (638 2nd St., Oakland; BarloventoChocolates.com) also had its beginnings at a farmers' market in 2003, when owner Peter Brydon discovered what he has deemed to be the most delectable freshly dried bing cherries. He decided to create a confection that "let the cherry and the chocolate speak for themselves," and he turned a hobby into a successful business after getting laid off from Charles Schwab in 2006. He's since become a fixture at local farmers' markets himself, adding honey and almonds — products he buys from other farmers' market vendors — to his confectionary repertoire. Brydon also makes a hyperlocal Meyer-lemon-zest truffle with fruit harvested from his customers' backyard citrus trees; he rewards lemon donations with a $10 credit or a batch of the finished product.
Brydon has also created a hive of chocolatiers by renting out his expansive kitchen near Jack London Square to Vice Chocolates (Oakland Temescal Farmers' Market; ViceChocolates.com) and the Oakland Chocolate Company (638 2nd St., Oakland; TheOaklandChocolateCo.com), the latter of which is one of a few local establishments to actually make the chocolate on-site through the bean-to-bar process, using cacao from a Jamaican farming cooperative. Owner Nancy Nadel — who may be more familiar to most as Oakland's longtime District 3 councilwoman — fills her bonbons and truffles with Caribbean-inspired flavors, such as lime-pepper jelly.
Seneca Klassen, co-owner of the beloved East Bay chocolate hub Bittersweet Café (5427 College Ave., Oakland; BittersweetCafe.com) also makes small batches of bean-to-bar dark chocolate, which he's dubbed Bittersweet Origins Chocolate. Every few months, he drives down to the Oakland dock to pick up a shipment of cacao that he buys directly from farmers in Bali and the Dominican Republic. "Cacao is a tropical crop, and the chocolate is manufactured somewhere else, so we get disconnected from the story," he said. "But it's a complicated and amazing food, and my goal is education."
And then there's Alegio (1511 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; Alegio.com), Bellatrix Confections (22812 Parkhill Ct., Unit 1, Hayward; BellatrixConfections.com), Chocolatier Blue (1964 University Ave. and 1809 4th St., Berkeley; ChocolatierBlue.com), Coracao Confections (at Whole Foods stores, CoracaoConfections.com), Edible Love (EdibleLove.com), Michael Mischer Chocolates (3352 Grand Ave., Oakland; MichaelMischerChocolates.com), TCHO (various locations, TCHO.com), and the Xocolate Bar (1709 Solano Ave., Berkeley; TheXocolatebar.com).
Who's missing Scharffen Berger now?