From home bakeries to warehouse businesses, food companies expand in Richmond | KALW

From home bakeries to warehouse businesses, food companies expand in Richmond

Sep 22, 2014

Sky-high rents, Google buses and gentrification are all buzzwords around the Bay Area. But that is not the case in the city of Richmond. With unemployment at 10.1 percent, the city of more than a hundred thousand residents stubbornly trails behind the rates of Bay Area neighbors like San Francisco and Berkeley.  

But there is one sector that is offering hope for Richmond’s job seekers: Richmond’s rapidly expanding food industry.

Rosa Robinson said that early last year, unsuccessfully looking for work left her desperate and depressed.

“I was laid off by 5 different jobs in three years,” the 33-year old said. Once an international chef, Robinson and her husband were struggling to provide for their two kids, and she was looking for some kind of sign about what to do next. That sign came in a dream.

“In my dream—what I woke up what I thought was cakes, cake pops, cupcakes! She said.

“Right then and there, that very morning I went and got my health permit, my business license, my registration… and when it came time to name my business...I thought—Sweet Dreams,” Robinson said.

To keep overhead low, she runs the bakery business out of her apartment. Her small pantry is impeccably organized -- large plastic bins full of bulk ingredients are stacked up to the ceiling. From her home kitchen she turns out everything from chocolate strawberries to wedding cakes.

Sweet Dreams officially opened in May last year. So far, Robinson said business has been better than she could have hoped.

“I’ve never opened a business before like so I was definitely very ambitious, very determined,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that the customer was very happy with the results.”

Robinson was able to solve her own unemployment problem, but not everyone can start their own business.

Edgar Perez, for example, was having a tough time. The 19 year-old said he had been looking for a job for about three months.

“I also have this app -- SnagAjob -- they send me a lot of emails so I just apply to everything I’m eligible for cause I need something,” he said.

Perez said he filled out more than 30 applications. One of those was for a job at Blue Apron, a food delivery service that recently put out a call for 400 new workers in their newly-expanded fulfillment center in Richmond.

Other food based businesses are also putting down deeper roots here. The Whole Foods Distribution Center recently hired about twenty-five people. Galaxy Desserts — a wholesale pastry company — employs around two hundred, and Zoe’s Cookies, another wholesale bakery, is also expanding.

Ruth Vasquez-Jones, the President and CEO of Richmond’s Chamber of Commerce said she thinks there are two main reasons why these food businesses are taking off in the city.

“Number one, Richmond tries to be very business friendly. The second reason I think that of course is real estate,” she said. “We have some of the best cheapest real estate in a very desirable area.”

In fact, vacancy in the Richmond warehouse market is at a low 4.3 percent — down from almost 7 percent at the beginning of the year. But there are other some other factors.

Richmond Mayor, Gayle Mclaughlin, pointed to the city’s new Health in all Policies ordinance which says that all city policies must be evaluated based on how they affect the health of Richmond Residents.

“I believe that the biggest predictor of business coming to a city is whether quality of life is valued by that city,” she said.

McLaughlin said this new approach to city services and community well-being is also attracting business.

“They [businesses] want when their workers come to work that they are in a feel-safe and healthy and quality-of-life place,” she said.

Of course, for unemployed people like Edgar Perez, the first step is just getting a job.

“I need money to be able to carry my own weight cause I got bills to pay and the bills ain’t gonna wait for me,” Perez said. “When I ask people about them looking for jobs, they say everyone always finds it difficult for a while then out of nowhere they get something.”

Perez finally did find a job through a staffing agency, at yet another food business in Richmond -- Nutiva. It is an organic food company that sells coconut oil, hemp seed products and chia seeds.

“It’s a good job. It’s 8 hours a day so I’m happy I got the job,” Perez said.

John Roulac, the CEO of Nutiva -- which moved to Richmond in 2012 -- said the company has hired 40 people this year.  

“We chose to move to Richmond for several reasons,” he said.

“One, is it’s an ideal location 14 miles north from port of Oakland where we get our raw materials shipped in. Also it’s got great commitment from the city about producing more healthy food healthy lifestyles and it’s been excellent to recruit really smart hard working people,” he said.

Nutiva employs about 110 people, a quarter of whom live in Richmond. Orders are packed and shipped from the warehouse, and bulk products are packaged into shelf-ready bags and containers. Roulac pointed out pallets of coconut oil ready to go to stores like Costco, Whole Foods and GNC.

“Our question is not whether we can sell, it’s can we keep it in stock?” Roulac said his company is growing so fast he is looking at expansion.

That is good news for Richmond residents looking to land a job.