Retail Stars and Rental Prospects 

Bayfair Center devises a clever program to assist entrepreneurs and recruit tenants. Plus, specialty groceries.

At the end of July, after eight months of competition and business school bootcamp, the Bayfair Center in San Leandro will crown its 2010 Retail Star.

The contest has all the makings of a reality TV show: Public presentations of elevator pitches, dramatic elimination rounds, and the winner walks away with $250,000 worth of prizes — including a year's worth of free rent at the mall — to help the aspiring local entrepreneur open up shop.

"A lot of resources are available to participants in the Retail Star program," said Paul Lundstedt, an East Bay SCORE counselor and a contest judge. "A lot of resources are available to the winner to help them get started. It takes a little pressure off."

This year's finalists include an aromatherapy and candle business, a woman's clothier that would sell customized items, and a wig shop. To get to this phase in the competition, the contestants have fine-tuned their business plans, crafted marketing strategies, and drafted ideas for the store layout — which they presented to a panel of judges in front of an audience at the mall. Along the way, they got help from small business mentors and received four-hour training sessions on each topic.

"You can find areas where you can improve all of the proposals, and the hope is that by pointing out the weaknesses, the contestants can go back and strengthen the plan," said Lundstedt, a former executive with Kmart and Mervyn's. "Because those people who are not the winner still have good concepts that maybe should go forward."

Last year, during the inaugural Retail Star contest, Oakland resident Ben Wanzo wowed the judges with his concept for a cafe-meets-learning center that he called TEAch Bar, which opened in December. "You go into cafes and you see individuals studying and doing work all the time," he said. "I thought it was a natural fit to bring a learning lounge and classroom aspect into a cafe and make it a more functional place to work. We added white board walls, collaborative work spaces, we put in sliding glass doors to close off rooms if you really need to focus on what you're doing. We wanted it to be a warm and inviting place, and cafes provide that feeling."

As the winner, Wanzo won prizes such as $25,000 in cash, design and build-out help for the cafe, and a year's free rent at the mall — the very same mall he patronized as a kid. "It is really weird," he said of his return to an old haunt. "But it makes it that much more worth it. I look at the teens in the mall, and I think, 'That used to be me.'"

The contest doesn't just benefit business upstarts like TEAch Bar, of course. Madison Marquette, the company that operates Bayfair, has attracted a number of Retail Star contestants to its empty storefronts. "We have 10,000 square feet of rent-paying tenants that we met because of the competition," said Whitney Livingston, Bayfair's regional director of marketing. "We were trying to address the problem that all shopping center developers were dealing with and we knew at the end of the day we needed to collect rent to stay in business. But along the way, we could also provide entrepreneurs with tools to be successful."

The company developed the contest before reality shows like Shark Tank hit the air, and it has been videotaping the contest and the participants. Will we all be watching "America's Next Top Retail Star" next season?

"We are open to all of the possibilities," Livingston said.

Retail Tour: Specialty Ethnic Groceries

Last weekend, La Borinqueña Mex-icatessen (582 7th St., Oakland; TamaleGirl.com) celebrated its 66th birthday. Founded by Tina Ramos' Grandma Rosa, La Borinqueña started as a corner store selling toilet paper, soap, tortillas, and Latin groceries. An immigrant from Mexico, Grandma Rosa bought the shop on credit against the wishes of her Puerto Rican husband, who was placated when she let him name the business (which Caribbean natives may recognize as a reference to the Puerto Rican national anthem, and which also means "the Puerto Rican woman").

A few years later, the store moved to a new location, adding a bakery where Grandma Rosa started selling her famous homemade tamales. Ramos' parents met thanks to the expansion; her mother helped Grandma Rosa in the shop, and her father-to-be was hired as a baker. The couple bought the store — also on credit — from Grandma Rosa in 1958.

A third move for the business came in 1971, when La Borinqueña was forced to relocate because it fell in the path of the downtown Oakland freeway overpass construction. The Ramos family took that opportunity to develop the business into a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as a specialty Latin grocery that dispenses tortillas, chili pods, chipotle, spices, and Goya brand canned goods, which are typically impossible to find on the West Coast.

But the tamales are what bring the crowds. "We make them the same way grandma did," said Ramos, who goes by the nickname Tamale Girl. "We slow-grind the corn for the dough in-house. It's all made by hand." La Borinqueña also has updated the traditional, and among the six tamale offerings is a vegan potato-green-bean-stew option and a dessert version, where the dough is infused with crushed pineapple, cinnamon, and raisins.

Ramos has been making change at the register and helping out around the store since she was fifteen, and after a brief hiatus, she returned to help her sister, Isabel, take over the family business in 1997. But their mother, Natividad, still holds court at La Borinqueña on Saturdays. "I love it when you walk in to a business and you say, 'Hi mamma,' and someone from behind the counter can actually answer," Ramos said.

In addition to her passion for feeding people ("I joke that it's the little Latina grandma in my soul," Ramos said), helping to propel her grandmother and mother's efforts forward is what keeps her personally motivated. "This was a big thing for grandma to do, and I'm proud to carry on what she did," Ramos said. "I want to continue that history and figure out how it translates to modern times."

Tokyo Fish Market (1220 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley; TokyoFish.net) is another ethnic grocery that started as a family affair. Larry Fujita's parents opened the store in 1963, and over the years, it has garnered a reputation for selling the area's best sashimi-grade fish (the 100 or so varieties of seafood found in the market's 49-foot fish case is now handled by co-owner Lee Nakamura, who used to run the fish counter at Berkeley Bowl).

The tidy shop is also the place to find all types of Japanese foodstuffs: pickled vegetables, frozen gyoza, miso pastes, natto, and noodles galore. Fujita, who ironically is allergic to shellfish, personally sees to it that the market's produce is fresh by doing the daily fruit and vegetable buying himself, starting at around 1 a.m.

"It's easy to fax in an order or do it by phone, but I would not be happy doing it that way," he said. "Everyone knows I'm picky. We try to keep up the quality. We can't always keep up with the pricing of big stores, but we keep up the quality. That's our niche."

It's apparently an appealing one. During the holidays, the lines used to circle the 1,700 square-foot building, so in 2005 Fujita expanded the business to three times its original size. Three years ago, he installed a deli, where sushi and bento boxes are prepared by the former owners of Yokohama restaurant in El Cerrito.

Fujita said he and his sister, Carolyn, keep the business going in homage to their ninety-year-old mother, who singlehandedly kept everything afloat after her husband died in 1971. "She was tough," Fujita said. "She was here from eight in the morning to 6:30 or seven at night. She got home and she'd cook meals and do all of the accounting bookwork. She'd stay up late doing that. She'd do the wash on Sundays, the only day the store is closed. I have a lot of respect for what she did. She didn't complain; she just did it."

Zand's (1401 Solano Ave., Albany; ZandPastry.com) is yet another mom-powered enterprise, run by Monier Attar, who has two grown children whom she proudly mentions at any opportunity. The shop specializes in Iranian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean prepared foods and dry goods, including teas, tahini, grape seed oil, spices, and breads.

But the pastries — the decadent pistachio baklava or chocolate eclairs — are a big draw, and here, Attar draws from vast experience. In her native Iran, Attar owned one of Tehran's first French bakeries, but following the Iranian Revolution, the theocratic government closed down her business because she declined to stop serving women who refused to wear a hijab.

Attar and her two young children eventually made it to Berkeley, where she had a brother and an aunt. Four years later, after saving $7,000 by working three part-time jobs and babysitting in the evenings, she opened up Zand's in a 500 square-foot Albany storefront.

"My motivation was that I was so homesick," she said of starting her own shop. "It was my dad's idea. He said, 'You are working so hard for other businesses, why don't you do your own?' The first three years were tough. But Iranians didn't have a nice, clean place then and it didn't take long for them to find us."

Zand's expanded to its current location in 2001, and Attar began selling prepared foods, including house-made hummus and falafel, and tah cheen, an Iranian dish of oven-baked Basmati rice with chicken, saffron, and barberries. Half of Zand's menu consists of Persian fare, with Attar drawing on her own mother's recipes. And every other day, her daughter makes a batch of spanakopita, which is sold at the shop.

Despite the six-day-a-week workweeks, Attar said she's glad she ended up running her business in a town halfway across the globe from her home country. "I love it," she said. "I don't have much free time, but the time I'm working, I'm having fun. I don't look at it as work. I see it as a place I go to see my favorite people."

You don't have to look far in the East Bay to find fine ethnic groceries. Forego a trip to Trader Joe's and stroll the aisles of GB Ratto's (821 Washington St., Oakland; Rattos.com) for Italian goods, The Spanish Table (1814 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley; SpanishTable.com) for tasty cured meats, Indus Food Center (1920 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley) for Indian spices, and Nordic House (2709 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley; NordicHouse.com) for a wide array of Scandinavian delicacies.

Retail News

Openings: Gluten-free bakery Good Chemistry Baking (3249 Grand Ave., Oakland) with a weekday lunch menu on its way. ... Sales: Sizzlin' Summer Sale on July 10 at Comic Ink (7980 Amador Valley Blvd., Dublin) featuring raffle drawings for toys and comics. ... Save 20 to 40 percent on closeout items and selected floor samples, and 10 percent on all other furniture, through July 18 at both Fenton MacLaren locations (5533 College Ave, Oakland; 1325 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley). ... Wilderness Exchange (1407 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley) is going out of business. Clearance sale through mid-July.

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