Rockridge Market Hall Foods Celebrates 30 Years
More than three decades ago, this lot on College Avenue in Oakland sat empty except when it transformed into a pumpkin patch every Halloween.
But siblings Sara, Tony and Peter Wilson had a vision that it could be so much more.
The New Zealand natives set to work to turn it into the first European-style food court in the Bay Area.
This year, Rockridge Market Hall Foods celebrates its 30th anniversary, a remarkable achievement in this day and age when fewer and fewer family-owned markets seem able to survive yet alone thrive.
To celebrate, the marketplace is hosting monthly events all this year that feature fun free activities and treats. To see what’s upcoming, check out the calendar here.
“It was the ’70s, when everyone was starting to really get into food,” Sara says of its origins. “We didn’t have anything, so we felt we had nothing to lose.”
Though there was some initial opposition over the size of the development, Sara says, there was also a huge amount of support from the neighborhood. In fact, from the day the doors opened, it was an immediate hit.
Unlike a cavernous modern-day supermarket, Market Hall encompasses a number of separate, specialized businesses. The makeup has changed a little over the years. But it remains a place to explore, where one can follow the old-school European way of patronizing the fishmonger for seafood, walking to the bakery for fresh bread, and popping into the wine shop for a bottle to enjoy with dinner. Here, it’s all under one roof with Highwire Coffee Roasters, Market Hall Bakery, Hapuku Fish Shop, Paul Marcus Wines, Market Hall Produce, Market Hall Foods, Marin Sun Farms Butcher Shop, and The Flower & The B.
The Wilsons always sought out owner-operator businesses rather than huge chains, too, because they wanted to maintain the hall’s distinctiveness in featuring the best local and European food stuffs.
The 22,000-square-foot Market Hall is such a community institution that the children of its original customers now not only shop here, but sometimes work here, too. And many employees have been on staff for decades.
On any given day, the place is bustling, especially at the bakery, where challah made with California olive oil, pizzas fashioned from baguette dough, and individual buttermilk panna cottas fly out the door. There’s even a Cookie Happy Hour, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, when giant chocolate chip cookies can be had still warm from the oven.
The fish shop adheres to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide, selling only sustainable, seasonal fish and locally made caviars, as well as prepared foods such as fish sandwiches, smoked trout clam chowder, and rock shrimp salad. Fresh fish arrives every single day. Not surprisingly, when it’s in season, fresh salmon is the biggest seller.
Over the years, tastes have changed and more products have become available. That means a wider selection of cheeses, honeys, and olive oils than ever before.
The hall is so tightly packed with products that space is always at a premium. Senior buyer Linda Sikorski is especially discriminating, saying “yes” to only about 20 percent of new products that come her way. She strives for products that are all natural, with no artificial coloring or GMOs.
While there is a smaller Market Hall Foods in Berkeley that opened on Fourth Street in 1996, the Wilsons have resisted opening other outposts further afoot — even if they have been besieged with offers to do so.
“I’ve never wanted to replicate it elsewhere,” Sara says. “It’s a passion and a love. You can’t replicate that.”
Instead, she’s content to stay small with a big presence.
“I never thought it would last 30 years,” she says. “I’m proudest of the staff and all the teams who have worked so hard. The fact that it is successful is amazing.”
More Next-Door: Oliveto Restaurant and Cafe