Tuesday, November 22, 2011

General Store Pops Up No More

By Jesse Hirsch
Tue, Nov 22, 2011 at 11:41 AM

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.

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  • Stacy Ventura
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 Farmer’s 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 other 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.”


Comments? Tips? Get in touch at Jesse.Hirsch@EastBayExpress.com.

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