| | By Anna Mindess
In 1933, milk sold in Oakland for 7 cents a quart, rump roast cost 18 cents a pound, a dime could get you 10 cupcakes, and ads touted cigarettes as a nerve-calming digestion aid. Like many others in the bleak Depression economy, stone-mill salesman John Denis lost his job. But Denis was a remarkably resourceful man: He and his father (a steelworker who helped build the Golden Gate Bridge) set up a few unsold mills, peddled their own whole-grain flour door to door, and eventually opened a little shop in the Laurel District called The Food Mill. Thus was born Oakland’s first natural food store, a well-loved institution that’s been going strong for almost 90 years.
Like The Food Mill, a handful of small, local companies have been quietly baking cookies, grinding peanut butter, roasting coffee beans, and making healthy snacks right under our noses in Emeryville, Alameda, and Oakland—some since our grandparents were kids. Food-conscious East Bay shoppers who carefully choose locally grown grapes, greens, and goat cheese at their weekly farmers’ market may have never even noticed them. Despite the proliferation of gigantic supermarkets and the demise of small businesses, the independent spirit of these intimate, family-run enterprises has enriched the community and provided us with tasty food and drink that probably couldn’t have a smaller carbon footprint if you made it yourself.
The story of the Food Mill centers around a pair of families. The first—founder Denis, his father, and niece—and later a succession of Denis family members ran the store for 60 years. Back in the ’30s and ’40s, local farmers would bring nuts, and fresh and dried fruit, to Oakland. The store maintained bulk bins of rather New Age-y foodstuffs: wild rice, flaxseed, kelp, soybean flour, and whole-wheat macaroni. The Food Mill took its name from the flour workers slowly ground between large stones on-site, a process believed to retain more nutrients than milling with high-speed metal rollers (the latter allows a heat build-up that destroys vitamins and enzymes). In its heyday in the ’60s, Denis’s brood produced 1,000 loaves of whole-grain bread a week. On-site stone-grinding was phased out in the mid-’90s, but the breads baked in the ovens upstairs—including honey-wheat, omega/oatmeal, and cheesy onion-dill herb—are still made from stone-ground flour.
In 1969, Kirk Watkins, a 16-year-old Oakland High student, got a part-time job packing cookies at The Food Mill. His boss was founder John Denis, whom Watkins describes today as “a cordial and generous gentleman.” By sweeping floors, cleaning bins, juicing carrots, and milling grain, Watkins became a member of the Food Mill family. In 1993, a few years after Denis died, Watkins bought the company and now employs his own wife, sons, and brother.
Walking up the narrow wooden stairs to the floor above the shop that resembles a charming folk-life museum, Watkins, now 57, introduces the assortment of machines. He points with pride to the longevity of this kitchen equipment: The original nut roaster and nut butter grinder from the ’30s still churn out 50 to 60 cases of almond, cashew, peanut, and sesame butters every week. The old rotating shelf oven that dates from the ’50s and the cookie extruders from the ’70s produce hundreds of loaves of bread and batches of cookies a week. Watkins says his family’s experience fixing old cars comes in handy when minor repairs are needed.
Watkins’s older brother, Evan, 62, a former owner of an auto-electric shop who still likes to work with his hands, is scraping 75 pounds of oatmeal cookie dough out of a massive mixing bowl into an antique-looking contraption, called a cookie depositer, which efficiently squeezes out three continuous streams of dough onto a succession of cookie sheets. He will hand-cut the soft cookie bars into rectangles after they emerge from the oven.
Soft-spoken, Evan likes to work alone and get into a rhythm. He works three days a week, turning out three batches of 130 dozen cookies a day, in classic ’70s flavors like peanut butter, super ginger, date nut, and sunflower sesame. According to Kirk Watkins, these moist, flavorful bars are such a part of East Bay childhood that locally raised college students have been known to request care packages of Food Mill cookies.
Later, after helping a fit-looking customer in his 70s choose some supplements for his aching muscles, Watkins reflects on the changing times. “Nowadays,” he says, “people appreciate and seek out natural foods. We’re not regarded as those crazy health people, like we were back in the ’60s and ’70s.”
While The Food Mill rode the wave of healthy food movements led by crusaders such as John Kellogg and Adelle Davis, Tony Plotkin, owner of another family business, Emeryville’s Grainaissance, was inspired by an alternative health philosophy: macrobiotics. A Southern California native, Plotkin attended grad school in Kansas in the mid-’70s, where he noticed an odd regional difference: The oranges in Wichita markets clearly had some chemical assistance to produce their Day-Glo hue. Returning to California (first Chico and later Hayward), Plotkin started frequenting health food stores and reading about macrobiotics (the Japanese-inspired philosophy that emphasizes seasonally appropriate foods and whole grains).
“Three of us Jewish guys got together with a Japanese man in San Francisco,” Plotkin recalls. “We started making mochi in a garage on Sundays to sell at natural food stores.” In Japan, mochi has been made for centuries by pounding polished white rice with wooden mallets until it becomes a paste, which is then sweetened or eaten plain for the traditional New Year’s meal. But Plotkin and his friends used a mochi-making machine to experiment with organic whole-grain brown rice. Their first flavor: mugwort, a Japanese herb. Plotkin admits that after 31 years, mugwort, his sentimental favorite, is not as popular as it once was, but it is still requested by San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery and a few die-hard mail-order fans.
In 1979, Plotkin’s Grainaissance officially began production in a Berkeley factory and started adding mix-in goodies such as dates, cashews, cocoa, raisins, and cinnamon.
Two years later, amazake, a brown rice shake based on a traditional Japanese fermented rice drink, joined the product line. Vegan, and free of both dairy and gluten, the beverage comes in decidedly non-Japanese flavors—for example, vanilla pecan pie, chocolate almond, Banana Appeal, and Gimme Green with spirulina and wheat grass.
Today, Plotkin employs mochi makers in a cozy, white-walled food-processing facility in Emeryville, where the company relocated in 1987. Starting at the Zen hour of 5 a.m., workers in long yellow slicker aprons and high brown boots soak organic, whole-grain, California “sweet” brown rice, then steam, mix, grind, knead, and, finally, divide it into bags, which are sealed and flattened. Each day, Grainaissance produces 1,500 pounds (or 800 packages) of mochi in a trio of complementary flavors—plain, super seed, and sesame garlic, for example, or cashew date, cinnamon raisin, and chocolate. (Years ago, I was thrilled to discover mochi as a gluten-free breakfast food. And its unique transformation from a rock-hard slab to a puffy, chewy cloud, after 10 minutes in the oven, charmed my small daughter as well.)
During the production of amazake rice shakes, the comforting aroma of warm baby cereal fills the room. The source is two 300-gallon kettles of boiling rice—enough to feed a baby giant. After the mixture cools, koji, a Japanese enzyme, is added to break down carbohydrates and develop the rice’s natural sweetness.
Once the flavors are mixed in, the mash passes through a “finisher” with a fine screen—an innovation inspired by Plotkin’s visit in the ’80s to the old Gerber baby food factory in Oakland. A circle of mechanical udder-like spouts deposits the drink into bottles; these proceed by conveyor belt to the capping machine where they are spun around into colorful caps. Today’s batch of the Go Hazelnuts flavor receives bright purple beanies. About 4,800 bottles are filled each day.
Plotkin’s wife still works as the company bookkeeper, but his three children (now 28, 16, and 8) have long since lost interest in kid-friendly chores like wielding the hand-dating gun or packing bottles in cartons. “It got real boring to come to the factory,” he says. “There weren’t any toys or merry-go-rounds.”
Like many small business owners, Plotkin says he is subject to continual headaches from problem employees, endless government agency rules, and the closing of mom-and-pop health food stores that used to be his best customers. It’s difficult to balance preserving the integrity of his products with the need to evolve, he says. Nonetheless, he has managed to introduce unusual flavors and is planning to add probiotics, more fiber, and omega-3 to satisfy customer demand. “Gotta change with the times or lose your market,” he says, running his hand through his salt-and-pepper hair.
Around the time Tony Plotkin was making mochi in a friend’s garage, Don and Susie Morris were driving around Berkeley in their VW van, delivering batches of the fresh madeleine cookies that Susie whipped up first in their kitchen and later at Berkeley’s Virginia Bakery. Susie, the artist, and Don, the entrepreneur, had previously collaborated on making and selling hand-painted Renaissance skirts. They were ready for a new venture, when, in 1976, an opportunity arose to make madeleine cookies for Pig by the Tail, a Shattuck Avenue charcuterie (the site now houses The Cheese Board). In the same year, the original Peet’s Coffee on Vine Street became the first coffee shop to carry the Morris’s little moist French cakes. The product translated well to East Bay palates, ensuring Donsuemor (“don-sue-mor”) madeleines a beloved spot in Gourmet Ghetto history.
In the mid-’80s, after the company moved into an Emeryville bakery where it produced madeleines in four traditional flavors, Susan Q. Davis, born in France to a French mother and American father and raised in East Oakland, started working part-time for the Morrises. A French literature student at Cal, Davis initially washed dishes, mixed batter, and packaged cookies. But like Kirk Watkins, the young employee was eager to learn every aspect of the business, and when Don Morris died in 1997, she became CEO. Today, cofounder Susie Morris remains involved with the business, but thanks to Davis’s leadership, has time to pursue a postponed passion for singing in early music groups.
Donsuemor had long been on the verge of outgrowing its Emeryville bakery and after a 2007 move to its new 32,000-square-foot facility in Alameda, the company produces 15,000 baked goods an hour. Their classic treats—now sold in hundreds of stores in six states—start with butter and sugar, creamed together by machine. Flour, eggs, and natural flavorings are added by hand.
A pan-filler machine spurts out batter into 20 shell-shaped depressions in a madeleine pan. Once baked, those destined for a chocolate coating travel on a belt under a mini-waterfall of chocolate. Workers stand by to turn the pieces over one at a time, readying them for a second chocolate shower.
Davis recently invited a French pastry chef to help expand Donsuemor’s product line. He added French almond cakes, based on the traditional French teacakes called financiers. Then, fascinated with American cupcakes, he married them to French petit fours to produce the company’s newest creation, Cute Cakes—tiny, hand-dipped rounds decorated with stripes and bright pink sprinkles. Davis’s lineage and love of French literature perfectly prepared her to oversee production of Proust’s favorite cookie. The company’s motto: “The One You Remember.”
Alfred Peet is widely regarded as the local pioneer of artisan-roasted coffee. But in 1924, when the coffee king was just 4 years old and had yet to sip his first drop of java, John Vukasin, a Yugoslavian immigrant, opened Peerless Coffee on a deserted block of Oakland near Jack London Square. These days, this venerable institution, the granddaddy of local food production companies, is headed by the grandchildren of its founder. But it still roasts and sells dozens of artisan-blended coffees, plus spices and teas, in an old-fashioned storefront that preserves much of the original decor. (Peerless products are also available online.) Long-standing clients include restaurants like Bay Wolf, Cyrus, Gary Danko, and several Four Seasons hotels.
Like many small entrepreneurs, Vukasin expected his son, George, to take over the family business—and so George did (with wife Sonja) when his father died in 1975. But when the next generation of Vukasins came along, George encouraged his offspring to make their own decisions. Daughter Kristina explored other options—she attended law school and became an Alameda County deputy district attorney from ’93 to ’98—but gravitated back to the family enterprise, where she now serves as vice president and general counsel. Son George studied art history and economics at Cal, earned his Grand Diplôme de Cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and traveled the world.
In retrospect, George Jr. sees these years as preparation for returning to his family’s coffee business and in the 1980s, when the Specialty Coffee Association held competitions in coffee tasting and judging, George Jr. earned one of the highest scores ever recorded for the sensory skills test. He is now president and CEO of Peerless.
Both the president and vice president of Peerless have fond memories of growing up in their parents’ store. “We would sit on the big sacks of coffee beans and do our homework,” Kristina recalls. Mother Sonja added several special touches, from the ’70s orange and green wallpaper in George Jr.’s office, featuring—what else?—coffee pots, to a charming coffee museum (open by appointment only) filled with her collection of antique tins, gadgets, and signs.
Like an artist with a giant palette, George Jr. fashions his blends from 125 varieties of coffee from Kenya, Kona, Colombia, Jamaica, Java, Sumatra, and many other regions. The back room at Peerless is filled with a steady hum of machinery and the irresistible, earthy scent of roasting coffee beans. After a tumble in the roasters, 300 pounds of warm beans are swirled around wide, mesh-covered cooling carts.
For 87 years at Peerless, “cupping”—the process of tasting coffees in order to select the best beans—has been exclusively performed by family members. The cupping room is steeped in history, dominated by the same round table that John Vukasin used. The table is set with brewed coffees in a circle of glasses and a stool, where George Jr. cups for about an hour every day in blind taste tests to compare current beans to new possibilities. The process is basically sniff, slurp, and spit (into a nearby spittoon). The loud slurping aerates the coffee so it can be sensed all over the mouth and nose.
Today, George Jr. is comparing 10 Ethiopian varieties, from which he might choose one or two. A couple of times a year, he travels to Central America, Kenya, or Indonesia to scout out new coffee growers. “I’ve got the best possible job,” he says, smiling between sips of fragrant, intensely flavored brews. “I get to travel the world and work with my family.”
Anna Mindess is a freelance writer specializing in food and culture and a frequent contributor to The Monthly. She is also a sign language interpreter. Keep up with her latest discoveries on her blog, eastbayethniceats.com; her Twitter, EBEthniceats; and her website, annamindess.com.
Coffee connection: John Vukasin founded Oakland’s Peerless Coffee in 1924. Pictured here in 1975 (from left to right): John’s son George, grandson George Jr. (now CEO); granddaughters Michelle and Kristina (now vice president), and daughter-in-law Sonja. Photo by Lonne Wilson.
The Food Mill (nut butters, cookies, bread), 3033 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, (510) 482-3848; thefoodmillonline.com.
Grainaissance (mochi and amazake), 158 62nd St., Emeryville, (510) 914-1692; grainaissance.com.
Donsuemor (madeleine cookies), 2080 North Loop Road, Alameda, (510) 865-6406; donsuemor.com.
Peerless Coffee (coffee, tea), 260 Oak St., Oakland, (510) 763-1763; peerlesscoffee.com.