Foodie Hub Kick-Starts One West Oakland Neighborhood

A vacant industrial block became a local food producers' incubator with the help of a landlord with vision.

Ask an entrepreneur their founding story, and you might get a tale of nearly mythic proportions. There's the big idea, a huge leap of faith, and making appearances along the way, quiet heroes who appear at make-or-break moments. They are angel investors, first customers, and—if heroes can take the form of those who give us our first shot at establishing ourselves—they might be a landlord named Joe.

Adeline Street’s 2900 block in West Oakland was vacant. According to current tenant, organic mushroom farmer and Back To The Roots co-founder Nikhil Arora, "this whole area used to be dead, just an empty entire block." By measure of the California Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development, in 2010, unemployment in the neighborhood's census tract was over 45 percent.

In the heart of the neighborhood, a candy factory turned bakery sat empty, one of many remnants of the area’s once thriving food industry. Pastry business owner Joe Hurwich had sold his company and watched as the new owners vacated that building. He considered doing what is done so often with spaces that have outlived their industrial purpose—tear it down and sell the land to a condo developer.

But Hurwich was in the fortunate and uncomfortable predicament of some men of a certain age—he wasn't ready wear the term "retired." He'd raised a family in the Oakland area and volunteered in economic development circles. He'd also already taken a chance on the food business when he'd left his CPA firm to buy the breakfast pastry company that he ran for 15 years. Wanting to find a new purpose for the old building—and himself—Hurwich subdivided his property into homes for small food companies. He soon found himself a landlord suited to start-ups.

"Because I have a little bit of grey hair—I have a lot of grey hair, actually—and because I was in the food business, I could understand these small start-ups a little better than the average landlord." Hurwich says. "I was willing to take certain risks on these guys."

For some, he’s become a mentor. "Free advice is sometimes worth what you pay for it," he quips. But on the strength of their own resourcefulness, Hurwich's tenants have begun to establish something of a foodie small business hub.

After five years, the building is full. The massive structure contains Back To The Roots; organic, GMO-free Hodo Soy Beanery; the pet food maker Fargo Choice Foods; kale and granola superfood producer Kaya Foods; Coracao Confections, and newby to the locale, Firebrand Breads.

For Nick Kelley, co-founder and CEO of Kaya Foods, moving to the space made sense: "The rent is cheap!" More than that though, sharing an ecosystem with other foodies has less obvious benefits. "I trade war stories with my entrepreneurial neighbors, and we have helped each other out on multiple occasions with warehousing and equipment sharing." The companies trade names of service providers and investors. Arora from Back To The Roots says their neighbors at Hodo Soy even feed them.

Renting space in the complex comes with another perk: Joe. Says Arora of his landlord, "He's one of the sharpest, most successful business people I’ve ever met, but so humble and supportive. He's been a huge mentor for us as we've grown in the past year or so."

Business is good. Two companies have outgrown their initial rental properties and have moved to larger facilities within the complex. Hurwich and a number of his tenants have benefitted from local small business development matching grants.

The biggest change in the neighborhood, according to Arora, is activity.

Throughout the week, there are now delivery trucks, cars, neighbors taking tofu-making classes and school kids touring the mushroom farm. More to the point, over one hundred people are now employed in the building.

While Kelley does point out that the street seems to have gentrified slightly, Arora finds a new energy on their shared block. "We all feel we're part of a greater vision, and it's inspiring to come to work and see so many people all around you, in our company and others, all busting their butts to make good, delicious, nutritious food accessible to more people."

Seeing the next generation of foodies growing so fast and creating jobs reminds Hurwich of his days as a business owner, when he promoted his best employees through the ranks from entry-level to management. Then and now, it’s about creating a space for hardworking people to succeed.

"It’s the American way, if you will," he says. "I don't want to be corny, but it's pretty cool to be in a position to help people do that."

Images courtesy of Noah Berger and Back to the Roots