“Winning over your audience” and “finding your voice” are phrases Sonoma County chefs return to often when talking about the spread of pop-ups and shared kitchens. It sounds like something a musician or a playwright might say. And just like an open mic or a staged reading, restaurant pop-ups are a chance for chefs to experiment and connect with new audiences.
It’s also a chance for the restaurant community to show its true colors. “It can be a cutthroat business when you’re in the kitchen, but on the outside, we’re all a community of chefs trying to help each other, and that’s a beautiful thing,” says Ploypailin Sakornsin, the Bangkok native who dreamed up Sangsan, a Thai pop-up that serves a popular fried Thai omelet on Saturdays and Sundays at Miracle Plum.
There’s nothing new about pop-ups and shared or commissary kitchens. They’ve been around for a while. But, kicked into high gear by pandemic ingenuity and escalating local real estate prices, these spaces are popping up more often, thanks to the spirit of cooperation in Sonoma County’s resilient restaurant culture.
“When we started this business, in our very first meeting, the key word we used was ‘collaborate.’ Let’s throw out the word ‘competition’ and focus on ‘collaboration,’ ” says Sallie Miller, who, along with Gwen Gunheim, owns Santa Rosa’s Miracle Plum, a hybrid gourmet cookware shop and wine bar, with a commissary kitchen down the street.
Lee Magner is one member sharing the Miracle Plum commissary with several other food operations. Magner started Sonoma Mountain Breads in 2020 with 10 loaves he baked in his apartment. He now serves breakfast sandwiches, pierogis, and Middle Eastern flatbreads on Saturday and Sunday mornings at Miracle Plum. “I feel very grateful to be where we are and have this sense of community – a community that thankfully supports what we do,” says Magner.
A few miles south in Santa Rosa, the kitchen at Old Possum Brewing Co. has been resurrected by the spirit of Southern hospitality, rotating between Texas barbecue and Louisiana Cajun pop-ups. Mississippi native Kris Austin serves up Austin’s Southern Smoke BBQ brisket and ribs one day. The next day, the crew from Bayou On The Bay cooks gumbo ramen and curry jambalaya the next (see p. 51). “Either I’m prepping and they’re serving or vice versa. It might seem weird, but it all works,” says Austin, who worked as personal trainer in Sebastopol until the pandemic hit. “Being in one place really helps us build an audience, rather than having people chase us around trying to find us.”
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In Petaluma, collaboration is also at the heart of the new Sonoma Family Meal community kitchen.
The nonprofit jumped into action during the 2017 Tubbs fire, with chefs providing meals for the displaced and hungry. After bouncing around eight kitchens in the past five years, the group recently settled into a new 3,100 square-foot kitchen, where they will prepare weekly meals for people experiencing food insecurity and offer a home to aspiring chefs and caterers in need of affordable space. “We know there’s a tremendous lack of rentable kitchen space in this county, and you don’t necessarily need to be low-income to lack the resources for a brick-and-mortar space,” says executive director Whitney Reuling.
If karma exists in the restaurant industry, Marla Bakery has plenty to spare. When owners Joe Wolf and Amy Brown ran their popular brickand- mortar bakery in San Francisco, they hosted regular dinner pop-ups for friends in the industry who wanted to experiment and tap into a new audience. Now, after moving to Sonoma County just as the pandemic hit in 2020, the couple has found a new home, serving their custardy challah french toast for brunch at The Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa, where chef-owner Liza Hinman no longer cooks breakfast (or as she puts it, “We realized we no longer find joy in poaching eggs”).
In many ways, looking for a pop-up partner can feel a lot like dating. “There is a level of courtship when it comes to being in someone else’s space,” Wolf says. “You’re likeminded, but you don’t have to be completely like-minded. You don’t have to have someone who fits the exact same mold as you.”
Brown, his wife and partner at Marla Bakery, agrees. “There is a little bit of a dance there – you’re a guest in their kitchen, so you’re respectful and you ask a lot of questions about how not to get in their way. You have to figure out – what’s the vibe? How does it feel? What are we stepping into?”
After working in restaurants in San Francisco for over a decade, Brown has returned to Sonoma with a new appreciation for the community where she grew up. “It can feel a little bit like a zero-sum game in the city, because everybody’s always trying to get the clicks and the Instagram likes and get people in the door. And here, in Sonoma County, it really does feel like a rising tide lifts all boats. It just feels like everybody is trying to bring their dream forward and support those around them doing the same thing.”
Find the pop-ups
Marla Bakery at The Spinster Sisters: 401 South A St., Santa Rosa. Saturday and Sunday brunch. marlabakery.com
Sangsan at Miracle Plum Kitchen: 600 Wilson St., Santa Rosa. Saturdays and Sundays. sangsanhealdsburg.com
Sonoma Mountain Breads at Miracle Plum Kitchen: Saturdays and Sundays. sonomamountainbreads.com
Austin’s Southern Smoke BBQ at Old Possum Brewing Co.: 357 Sutton Place, Santa Rosa. Mondays and Fridays. IG: @austins_smoke_bbq
Bayou on the Bay at Old Possum Brewing Co.: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. IG: @bayou.onthebay