Last Saturday was like a national holiday for my up-and-coming Oakland neighborhood, the Dimond district -- or, as the SF Chronicle noted this week, our "decidedly unglamorous" 'hood. Well, all of us unglamorous folk turned out in large numbers to celebrate the long-awaited opening of Farmer Joe's Marketplace -- a locally owned grocery store featuring natural and organic produce. The original Farmer Joe's about a mile up the road is a quarter of the size of the new one, which is 20,000 square feet, with ample room for all.
I had plans that morning so I missed the first festivities. I finally left home just before noon -- with girlfriend, for the time being, known here as PeachBlossom, in tow -- to make the five-block walk down the hill to buy fresh local and/or organic produce, fullfilling a dream I've had since moving to the neighborhood three years ago. (Walking to the neighborhood Safeway, which is really below standard even for a Safeway, just hasn't cut it -- if I need to go there, I usually drive, and it's always a very quick stop to pick up one or two items.) Right away we bumped into my next-door neighbor and a mutual friend from Berkeley making their way back up the hill from Joe's.
When we too arrived at Farmer Joe's, we saw a long line to get into the store, as well as a smattering of outdoor meat booths: free grilled samples of Panorama grass-fed meats, from Vina, which is just north of Chico; Drakes Bay Family Farms, located at the historic "G" Ranch in Pt. Reyes; Saag's Specialty Meats, founded in Oakland but now located nearby in San Leandro; and Aidells, also based in San Leandro but distributed nationwide. Neighborhood organizations were handing out information at tables, and there was a stage at the far end of the parking lot -- where a friend of mine was singing with her neighborhood group, Sing Thing, one of a number of groups set to perform. (Many of the members -- both adults and children -- have been singing folk songs together for almost 30 years just up and over the hill from Farmer Joe's in the song leader's living room.)
Soon we ran into another friend and her partner, and then I flagged down my friend Ruth, who was busily running around helping to keep the event on track. She and her partner Diane own Paws and Claws, a neighborhood health petfood store located just around the corner and down a block and a half from FJ's; they help me keep my kitties well fed and healthy and are so dedicated to helping the Dimond improve and flourish. I told Ruth that I wrote in her name for City Council, during our recent primary. She laughed... but I think I detected wheels turning behind her deep brown eyes.
Soon we were honored by a local Chinese lion dance troup whose purpose is to invoke good luck for Farmer Joe's -- and I hope this is really the beginning of turn around for our neighborhood business district, which today has so many empty storefronts. The dance -- at times quite acrobatic -- of five or six lions, all embodied by pre-teens and teenagers, culminated in the lighting of a long string of firecrackers hanging in front of FJ's large entrance -- Crick! Crick! Crick!... CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! Crick!... Sizzle. Sizzle. Crack!... POP!
After the smoke began to clear, we decided it was time to go inside. I was immediately in heaven, smiling ear to ear at how expansive the store is, especially when I came upon the organic produce sign. At first I thought maybe this refrigerated section (pictured, right) is all the organic produce available, but was pleasantly surprised to find more sections across from this one and a few large tables full of produce, such as potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and garlic.
When we walked by the meat counter, I caught the eye of one of the workers and can't help saying, "Welcome to the neighborhood!" which made her smile. This wasn't the only sign of enthusiasm. I heard a number of people thanking Diana Tam (FJ's owner, along with her husband Joe) for opening a store here.
I sought her out the next day, when I returned for the THIRD time, and told her how happy I am that they have come here, that I can walk from home to buy their groceries. She thanked me and said, I believe sincerely, "We really like this neighborhood. Please let us know if there's anything we can improve." What a difference from Safeway, when they look down at my receipt and then say, "Thank you, Ms. Muffler." Not my name, actually, but the name in the system still linked to my phone number. (Cracks me up every time.)
Diana helped a fellow coworker with the hourly raffle drawing (photo, right). Everyone received one ticket upon entering the store, with instructions to come to the back of the store, known as Joe's Grill, at 2 p.m. We appear there on cue. And I win a rack of lamb! Whenever I tell people I won a rack of lamb, their eyes get real big, like a rack of lamb would barely fit in my freezer. Not true. The package is about the size of a T-bone steak. It's in the freezer now waiting for me to have time to locate a recipe for rack of lamb. (If you have one, please email me at corn...@ethicurean.com.) I think they raffle off 15 to 20 prizes, mostly racks of lamb, ribeyes, and eventually biscotti. The first person to win in the raffle is so thrilled; soon all of us are supportively clapping for each and every winner and rooting each other on.
I noticed FJ's continues to sell my current favorite meat, Niman Ranch's hamburger, steaks, and pork chops, and they also offer Rocky and Organic Rosie chickens. (Note to MOLM and Miss Steak: they're not unlabeled, like at Whole Foods.)
Farmer Joe's sells a lot of conventional produce that's locally grown. For example, I saw Watsonville's Kika's Farms strawberries and sweet corn from Brentwood Farms, located in Byron, which is east of the Bay Area, somewhere between Walnut Creek and Stockton. I couldn't find Straus Family Creamery's yogurt (I know they sell it at their other store; maybe they were already sold out?) but bought Pavel's Yogurt, based in Oakland, to try out in my smoothies.
There's freshly made sushi, a coffee bar, and a deli where they make gourmet-style sandwiches. We bought wild salmon and peel-and-eat shrimp, both on sale for the day. I also couldn't help noticing on a later visit that there are nine shelves, each about 4 feet wide, of various types and brands of honey. Amazing! OK, this may be overkill but there's something about their valuing honey that much that makes me so happy. That, and the value they truly place on community.
Not only did I feel the newfound joy of the Dimond neighborhood that was on view that day, but I felt more connected to those five blocks on which I walked to and fro. I want to run into friends while out and about, which is nearly impossible when driving my car. I want to see people's excitement when picking out fruits and vegetables for their families after a long work day; I want the sense of welcome that our neighborhood provided for the Tam's and they for us. As the caption printed below the architectural composite photo posted outside the entrance says, "Joe and Diana Tam's Commitment to a Wholesome & Healthy Community."
May that be so, may it be so.