It was a near-perfect plan: Having successfully bought and operated Rocky’s Market on Leimert in the Oakmore neighborhood since 2016, co-owners and chefs Corinne Kinczel and Brady Bellis accepted a developer’s invitation to open a second location in Brooklyn Basin.
Housed in Oakland’s historic 9th Avenue Terminal Building, the site offered 15,000-square feet of fully covered outdoor seating for 75 guests, unbeatably gorgeous waterfront views and an opportunity to play a role in remedying the food desert area’s lack of healthy seasonable foods and groceries.
Construction based on Kinczel’s interior designs progressed smoothly; the shelves and bins soon filled with the market’s signature locally sourced organic produce, sustainable meats, artisan cheeses and extensive wine and craft beers. The café Kinczel had insisted must be included stocked up on take-away sandwiches and salads from Rocky’s in-house catering company, Two Local Girls. A mural designed by Vincent Truong, a student at Oakland School for the Arts, was professionally rendered, its colorful, cubist depiction of jewel-toned jazz musicians animating the environment. All that remained was the grand opening, scheduled for March 25, 2020.
“And then the pandemic happened and everything shut down,” says Kinczel in an interview.
Rallying to meet the challenge, the two work and life partners soldiered on, completing the outdoor dining space, hiring staff—some laid off from Grand Lake Kitchen—and resorting to old-fashioned, hands-on product labeling, among other measures. “We usually do PC codes and scan everything,” Kinczel explains, “but the software company that runs our system is based in North Carolina so we couldn’t get them out here. We had to sticker everything by hand.”
Even so, it was a far cry from a past Thanksgiving-time disaster at the Leimert location that turned out to be an invaluable business lesson. A corroded vent on the roof burst when Bellis was alone in the market at 10:30 at night and a waterfall descended. “I was out of town at a family reunion and he was literally taking buckets of water and throwing them out the door,” Kinczel recalls. A Facebook call for help drew support and the fire department arrived to clean up the roof. “But the biggest problem was that the insurance company told us they’d cover the repairs and the business losses during the nine days we had to close,” she says. “We lost $60,000 because they didn’t cover it. They said it was the landlord’s responsibility. We learned to never trust the insurance company.”
Perhaps that experience wisened or toughened them up, because Rocky’s Market at Brooklyn Basin opened April 6, less than two weeks after the original date.
The menu changes seasonally and despite the dizzying starts and stops occurring due to state or county guidelines that shift according to positive Covid-19 case numbers, customers have clear preferences.
A brisket brined for two weeks, it’s color similar to pastrami but minus the nitrates, sells best. A popular grilled peach salad in early summer now features grilled figs, burrata cheese and crisp chicken skin; late summer succotash comes with the offer to add roasted chicken, grilled prawns, or housemade bacon. “We make our own bacon from pork belly. We put a rub on it and let it sit for two days and then put it in the smoker for three hours,” says Kinczel.
Asked about why opening a second location during the pandemic lockdown—instead of waiting the arrival of a vaccine and a steady resumption of business—Kinczel says, “People need groceries and there’s not much around there and we’re aware of the food desert. And yet, we’re not the whole solution to that. It takes more than one little mom and pop shops. There needs to be more available: it’s crazy there’s no grocery store already. We’re doing our best to serve, to give what the developer asked for and uphold our mission also.”
The largest motivators in that mission are the desire to feed healthy, fresh food to people and a dedication to protecting the natural environment.
As if adopting and embracing every person in Oakland and each customer crossing the market’s front door threshold, she says “I want people to enjoy my creations. It’s important for me to know that people are getting good ingredients. When we bought the store, we used to get conventional produce and I would cringe when we ordered it. And all these pesticides on food? It’s really not good for people or for the earth.”
Aware that low-income customers experience financial barriers to obtaining healthy food, the market is working to accept CalFresh EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards.
A new foundation, Nourish the People, she calls “a baby charity,” still in its infancy, delivers free food to families in need of assistance. People can make donations ranging from as little as $1 to $5,000 or volunteer to help with intake data collection, packing, delivering, fundraising or weekly digital checkins about current needs of participants.
Currently, Kinczel delivers to the four families enrolled. “I’d like to grow it so we can service more people. Now, I do it myself and that’s doable. We pay for the groceries and have had some donations, but not many.”
Eventually, Rocky’s Market will host more events like the first jazz and wine tasting launched Sunday, Sept. 13. With the perfect location for outdoor, socially distanced dining, Kinczel says, “We can have music, art shows, dance troupes, anything. I can’t wait for the public to come down and enjoy it.”