Has Oakland Reached Restaurant Overload

The answer depends on rent, jobs, more residents, and a host of other factors.


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Sophia Chang, the founder of Kitchener, a small incubator kitchen for start-up food businesses, has noticed an uptick in small-food makers looking to get their feet wet in the Oakland food economy. “We closed off on booking our kitchen back in October, and in just the months of November, December, and January, in just two and a half months, we have 65 people on our waiting list,' she said. Chang is excited by the growth of Oakland's food sector, but worries, 'with all these restaurants popping up, you need people to go them.”

For those without the capital to build a brick-and-mortar location or luck to inherit a working, affordable space, the emergence of counter service in places like Swan's Market are-envisioning of the classic food-court concept, but without chain staples like Cinnabon and Sbarro'could serve as a low-overhead model for aspiring restaurateurs. Lower-overhead options could also allow Oakland to continue to engender its legacy of culinary creativity by allowing chefs to try new things without the heavy financial burden associated with traditional brick-and-mortar spaces.

Egon Terplan, the regional planning director at SPUR, a planning and government advocacy group, thinks the continued growth of Oakland's restaurant sector will also hinge on whether Oakland can deal with its rent crisis and bring more people and jobs into its borders. “An important factor, despite all the changes in Oakland, there's a very large number of people with very, very low incomes that live in Oakland.”

And Oakland rents are rising at the fastest pace in the entire country. If this trend continues, it's fair to wonder how much discretionary income Oakland residents will have to spend on luxuries like restaurants.

The question looming, it seems, is not whether Oakland needs to grow or not, but rather, how should it grow? Last summer, Terplan and SPUR penned a 75-page report on the future of Downtown Oakland. Among his proposals: add 50,000 jobs and 25,000 residents. “Downtown Oakland has reached a critical mass as a destination place,” Terplan said, in terms of adding jobs, people, restaurants, and entertainment, “but it still suffers to a certain extent, not having as much activity, all across the board.” Growing from the inside out rather than vice versa appears to be a part of the long-term solution.

Yapor-Cox, for one, envisions a future where neighborhoods have a symbiotic relationship with their businesses. 'It's kind of hard when you end up on these restaurant rows,' he explained. 'I would like to see more businesses develop that get people out onto the streets of Oakland ... foot traffic in our main corridors [is] going to help support all the people out there trying to run food businesses.' This much is certain: The food industry is well ahead of the curve. There will be obstacles in the coming years, but it's safe to assume the East Bay will continue to be ground zero for food pioneering. New ideas, cuisines, and venues will emerge, because it's part of the fabric of East Bay food culture: innovation. Growing organically isn't a foreign concept here.

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