Any number of things might have taken you into 331 Cortland in the three years since this Bernal Heights marketplace opened its doors: a hankering for a deli sandwich or a piping hot piroshki, the need for a sharper knife or a particular blend of spices. Unless you’re a regular you might not see this modest collection of countertops for what it really is: an innovative experiment in small business incubation that is influencing the food we eat all over the city.
“Madness,” Debra Resnik tells me with a laugh, when I ask what inspired her to set a bunch of hopeful food entrepreneurs loose in a 1100-square-foot building. A property developer by profession, Debra took advantage of the 2008 real estate crash to acquire the then-vacant space. The volunteer work she’d been doing at Mission-based kitchen incubator project La Cocina had set the wheels turning: “What I noticed there, was they have a great start-up program, but there wasn’t a step between having your initial training and making that leap into wherever you wanted to go.”
Resnik conceived of 331 as a way to help aspirants make that crucial first step of starting a business. Modeled after the stalls of the Ferry Building Marketplace and priced to accommodate emerging businesses, 331 is “a half step into the world of bricks and mortar.” Vendors could have come from basic starts like farmers’ markets or food carts, but for all of them, 331 is their debut behind a permanent storefront.
Here’s the gist: Each tenant holds a separate lease and each runs his/her business independently. Because of the vendors close proximity to each other – their shared prep kitchen and collective identity within the neighborhood – working and learning together is 331’s informal philosophy. When a vendor “graduates” everyone gets a say in who to welcome next.
What’s the standard incubation time on a new enterprise? Turns out, there’s no set formula. Businesses are allowed to develop completely organically, some striking out on their own in less than a year while others continue to do a thriving trade from 331 after three. From talking to the vendors, it’s clear that the gift of being able to grow alongside one another has shaped their businesses in ways they couldn’t have anticipated.
“We’re all learning,” Debra says. She confesses she’s been approached by multiple parties interested in using 331 as a model for incubator projects in other parts of the city. While Debra is delighted with this development, my conversations with 331’s vendors reveal it’s little cause for surprise – if one thing’s proved conclusive, it’s that 331’s unique chemistry yields success.
During his stint as a wood sculptor, Josh Donald acquired his first whetstone to sharpen the Japanese chisels he worked with. His prowess became apparent when his Paxton Gate coworkers started lining up for him to bring the edge back to their utility knives. The hobby turned business in 2005 with a sharpening service for local butchers that Josh and his wife Kelly ran out of their Bernal Heights home.
Since Bernal Cutlery’s inaugural tenancy at 331 Cortland, chefs around the city – from Boulevard to flour + water – have gratefully abandoned sharpening their own knives. Josh, whose well-stocked storefront displays an impressive array of Japanese and vintage chef knives, praises the arrangement for the way it’s enabled him to develop slowly and operate small. He plans to expand further within 331 before making a bigger move: “There’s a couple feet we haven’t really utilized as well as we could.”
Tammy Tan’s foray into the world of spices began when she discovered it was nearly impossible to find a Bay Area store that carried the blends necessary for certain Indian dishes. In 2007 she opened an outdoor kiosk in San Jose to provide the public with everything from basic to hard-to-find spices. Before settling into 331 in October 2010, she was selling her wares at six farmers' markets a week.
Since then, Tammy has increased her offerings from 80 spices to more than 100, including over 20 varieties of salt, a scorching assortment of chilies, and about 30 house blends. She credits her storefront with bringing in “instantaneous customer feedback” and treasures her fellow vendors as sources of inspiration. The fountain drink flavors she’s concocting for Paulie’s Pickling – honey cardamom, peach habanero, mango banana – may be the beginning of a new product line.
Anna Tvelova came to the Bay Area from Moscow, where she’d been a restaurant supervisor for Sheraton Hotels. Her marriage to a local meant staying in the U.S. permanently, but she didn’t want it to mean working as a waitress forever. AnDa Piroshki was born with the help of La Cocina, who sponsored Anna’s research to create “the best-tasting piroshki.” Made fresh every morning in up to nine varieties, there are many who believe she’s succeeded. Mere months after opening, AnDa Piroshki became the highest rated San Francisco Russian fare on Yelp.
Anna says she’s been wowed with her fellow vendors’ support ever since she set up shop. The spirit of togetherness may even extend to Anna’s imminent plans for expansion, a move to a second location that could bring Paulie’s Pickling along for the ride.
Paul Ashby was working construction and pickling in his spare time when his wife Liz’s “horrible habit of perusing Craigslist” led the couple to Debra. A pickle sample secured their spot at 331, where Liz (a cook by trade) wows the lunchtime crowd with her progressive takes on Jewish deli sandwiches and peddles Paul’s pickled products – say that three times fast – which run the gamut from seasonal vegetables to delicacies like tongue and herring.
Thanks to local hype, Paulie's Pickling goodies have been snapped up by Bi-Rite and Whole Foods. They’re excited at the prospect of another location, but don’t plan on abandoning their die-hard neighborhood fans anytime soon.
Back in 2008, Bernal Heights residents Tim and Erin Archuleta were strolling along Cortland when they spotted the flyer on 331 and saw the opportunity to take their bento box catering business to the next level. ICHI Lucky Cat Deli became one of 331’s original vendors, selling Japanese deli food and sustainable fish in a neighborhood that was starving for it. According to Erin, the year she and Tim experimented behind the counter, while gaining happy-hour exposure in Mission bars like the Knockout and Benders, has been integral to the success of ICHI Sushi, their cozy sushi bar at the bottom of Bernal.
Mandy Harper, a dessert aficionado and vegan from a young age, turned to baking to satiate her sweet tooth. She realized she was onto something when Rainbow Grocery agreed to pick up Wholesome Bakery samples, and she set out from there to tackle the street food market alongside Magic Curry Kart. Once Debra tasted Mandy’s sweet potato pie, her place as an original 331 vendor was guaranteed.
Mandy’s flying leap from 331 into wholesale has landed her cookie sandwiches in nearly 30 Bay Area cafés and markets. She calls her nine months at 331 an incredible lesson in how to run her own retail location ̶ one that will certainly come in handy in her future plans to open a bakery and pie shop.
Joseph Ahearne decided to try his hand at making empanadas when the long hours at his job in Mountain View began taking a toll on time with his family. The bottom nearly fell out of his farmers’ market based business with the collapse of the Island Earth Farmers Market. If it hadn’t been for the word of mouth that brought him to Debra, Joseph says, that might have been that. Instead, a year of stability at 331 meant Joseph was able to grow his enterprise, El Porteño Empanadas, in leaps and bounds, getting his empanadas into Whole Foods, selling his wares at Off the Grid, and ultimately landing a kiosk inside the Ferry Building’s hallowed walls.
Claire Hoyt of Big Dipper Baby Food is 331’s newest graduate. She’s moving on to cultivate her burgeoning wholesale business and frozen baby food line. Read more about Big Dipper Baby Food in this Bold Italic piece about local food makers. Claire's storefront was recently filled by a new purveyor, Eji's Ethiopian.
Pay a visit to 331 Cortland anytime between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Individual vendors’ schedules vary, so if your heart’s set on a certain something, scope out their websites. Don’t feel like an uphill trek? Cruise by the Ferry Building for an El Porteño empanada, patronize a Wholesome Bakery stocked café, pull up a stool at ICHI, or place an order online with Big Dipper Baby Food, Spice Hound, and AnDa Piroshki.