Rene Lontoc grilled lumpia burgers while people lined up to make their orders at his kiosk, Thank Que Grill. The burgers are the first of their kind, he says. One day when the chef was making the filling for the Filipino dish lumpia, he thought about using the meat-vegetable mix for burgers instead.
Rene Lontoc owner of Thank Que Grill at an event during the incubation phase of the Ashland Market and Cafe. Photo by Mandela Partners.
His experimentation made it to the menu.
And like his burgers, Lontoc is the first of a kind in a different sense. Thank Que Grill is one of the inaugural vendors at the Ashland Market and Cafe, a community-based, 2,100-square-foot food hall in the San Francisco Bay Area that had its grand opening in March 2019.
“I’ve been waiting for this for four years,” Lontoc said, as he moved patties from the fire onto a rack inside the grill.
Lontoc had the idea for his business after he was injured on the job while working as an instructor for the American Red Cross. He couldn’t return to work but he “started thinking on ‘how am I going to provide for my family?’ and this came about.”
He used recipes from his late grandmother as foundation for his menu and enlisted help from his aunts, who’d learned to cook from their mother. Before being chosen as a vendor at the Ashland Market and Cafe, he catered for events at a local university and cooked out of a commercial kitchen down the street from Thank Que Grill’s new home.
The market-cafe hybrid, at the intersection of East 14th Street and 164th Avenue, is an effort to build both health and monetary wealth in Ashland, an unincorporated section of Alameda County. In Ashland, the median household income from 2013 to 2017 was $50,966 and the unemployment rate was 9.4 percent, according to Census data. Fresh produce and other healthy food options also are harder to obtain than they are in wealthier neighborhoods.
“I just want to be a strong provider for the community,” said Latoya Bryant, co-owner of Jacquelynn’s Heart and Soul, another vendor in the new market. “In this community in Ashland, we’re in need of a lot of things, such as good food that you don’t have to go far out for.”
The food hall doubles as an incubator for the businesses. The current vendors have one-year leases with the option to extend, but the hope is that each one is “so successful that they need their own brick and mortar, that the kiosk spaces are not big enough for what they’re wanting to do,” said Mariela Cedeño, interim executive director at Mandela Partners, a nonprofit that was pivotal in bringing the market to fruition.
Mandela Partners staff tie ribbon at Ashland Market and Cafe grand opening. Photo by Joseph Tsai.
There were plans to open the market back in 2017, but construction and budget delays pushed back the date. Cedeño said this gave Mandela Partners and its partner organizations such as Resources for Community Development, an affordable housing developer, and the Alameda County Economic Development Agency time to get more input from Ashland residents about the market’s eventual form.
Originally, the space was going to be more like a grocery store, but once local residents voiced concerns over competition with an existing grocer across the street, plans changed. People wanted more access to healthy food, and they also wanted economic opportunity. The idea for a food business incubator garnered the most interest and support.
From there, a 12-member community advisory committee, made up of Ashland residents, started choosing the vendors. There were 13 initial vendor candidates presenting their plans to the group. The committee chose four.
Between then and the grand opening, the newly selected vendors attended workshops on business planning and menu development, and received one-on-one advising from Mandela Partners. The vendors also tested and refined their products at locations across the Bay Area, such as the Oakland Jack London Square Farmer’s Market, which is run by the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture.
The Ashland Market and Cafe was the dream of Dana Harvey, Mandela Partners’ founder, who died just days before the grand opening. A framed photo of her hangs on a wall in the new market.
Mandela Partners has incubated successful businesses before. Down the street from the nonprofit’s office, there’s Mandela Grocery, which started a decade ago and is now a fully independent worker-owner store that is planning to launch its own food incubator this year.
Like the worker-owners at Mandela Grocery, each of the Ashland vendors were already embedded in the community. At the grand opening, Bryant pointed behind her.
“I live about three blocks from here,” she said. “I live very close. Very, very close.”
And fellow vendor LaShawn Raybon, owner of the anchor I AM Cafe, lives about 3 miles away. Raybon first sold her food at the Bay Area Black Market and eventually started to cater under the company name Cakes by the Pound.
She says when we first learned about the opportunity with the Ashland Market and Cafe, she put her hat in the ring because someone encouraged her to, but she wasn’t sure if anything would come of it.
Now, Raybon has the largest space in the market. She says that she eventually wants to extend this opportunity by hiring other community members, namely mothers who are returning home after being incarcerated.
And she’s working hard to achieve that goal—and others—a reality without taking out any loans for the business, instead working two other jobs to fund her space, tools, and ingredients. Before the grand opening, she worked a graveyard shift.
“I’m working hard now so I can play hard later,” she said.
Updated April 22, 2019: The name of the Oakland Jack London Square Farmer’s Market was corrected.
Deonna Anderson is a freelance digital and radio reporter and a former Surdna reporting fellow for YES!