Changing the Narrative: Carolina Abolio of Miss Arepita

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We should all have access to culturally relevant food, but sometimes there’s a void.  A civil engineer by trade, Carolina Abolio started her business because she missed Venezuelan food and wanted to share her culture with the Bay Area.

I’ve been following Miss Arepita on Facebook for a while, but just met Carolina at an Oakland Grown event.  We got together for coffee a few weeks ago and had a great conversation about how she learned how to cook, how she tested her business idea and about the “Godmother of Miss Arepita.”

The beginning

Carolina originally started Miss Arepita because she loved to cook for friends.  She said it will always be a mobile business because she wants to bring her food to the people.

She grew up with amazing chefs in her family and learned how to slow down the food to get more flavor.  According to Carolina, an arepa is technically a “fast food” because it takes only a minute to serve, but the cooking process is actually quite slow.

Burritos, tacos and even pupusas can easily be found in Oakland, but arepas are different so she wasn’t sure how people would receive them.  After coming up with the idea to start a business, she talked to Tina Tamale, who she affectionately calls the “Godmother of Miss Arepita.”   They planned and hosted a successful pop-up fundraiser for East Bay College Fund at La Borinqueña and Carolina was able to make connections with more people in the community:  “You need a small village to run a small business.”  When she realized that people were loving her food, she decided to go for it and start her business.

Today

While Carolina sometimes pops up at events around town, she’s at the Phat Beets Farmers Market every Saturday.  She is always growing as a person, and giving back to her community as well.  Her life as an entrepreneur changes all the time, so she’s never bored.

If you’re thinking about starting a business

Carolina’s learned a lot through the years and she has some advice for aspiring small business owners:

Adapt to the situation.  

She struggled with advertising at first, because the market is small and hidden.  It was a challenge to get customers, but her friends invited their friends and eventually her business grew.

Be consistent.  

Keep striving so the customer gets the same experience on Day 1 and Day 260, without loosing the original intent.

Take small business classes – but not too many.  

She recommends taking business classes, but cautions against too much research: “Don’t take so many classes that you don’t start.”

Go and do it.  

She says, “Take the risk and do it.  Believe in yourself!”

The Wine Soul Train

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We support an equitable food system, which includes cultural understanding and appreciation for all the ways people gather and celebrate around what they eat and drink. In light of recent news of the book club, Sistahs on the Reading Edge, being criminalized and removed from the Napa Valley Wine Train, OFPC would like to extend a thanks to the vineyards in the region who have created welcoming spaces to gather, celebrate and organize.

To show our gratitude and highlight the businesses whose values are rooted in racial and economic justice, we have joined forces with The Mexican Bus to offer a tour of Black and Latino owned vineyards! Join us for a magical ride on our Wine Soul Train. Meet business leaders defining our food culture. Learn about agricultural practices, labor issues, and economic leadership to create a just food system.

Tickets Here!

What: The Wine Soul Train Tour

When: September 26th 2015, 10AM-6PM

Where: Napa and Sonoma Valley Vineyards

Cost: $100 per seat (includes lunch and wine tastings)

What to Expect:
We will begin and end our tour at the corner of 9th Street and Washington Street in Oakland, in front of Miss Ollie’s. From there we will begin our tour at 10AM sharp. We head north to visit various vineyards for wine tasting and discussion. We will enjoy our lunch against a panoramic backdrop. We will have the opportunity to taste and purchase wines, as well as meet business leaders in the wine country who are paving the way for black and brown ownership of vineyards and wineries. We expect to return to Oakland at 6PM.
Council Director, Esperanza Pallana, will be following up with day of logistics when you purchase your ticket. If you have further questions, feel free to contact her at epallana at oaklandfood dot org.

This event is sponsored by:

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West Oakland Property Prices Threaten a Food Activist’s Dream

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By  posted in KQED News

The property market in West Oakland is booming, but from the corner of West Grand Avenue and Market Street you can’t tell that.

“We looked at that site. That one. That one. The one that’s now been demolished,” says Brahm Ahmadi. There are seven sites he points to, all of which he’s failed to purchase. The cost is just too high, he says.

Ahmadi has worked for years to bring a full-service grocery store to West Oakland — where most food sales in the neighborhood are apparently at liquor and corner stores. Meanwhile, wealthier people are moving in, causing rents and property prices to rise.

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Ahmadi says West Grand and Market would be ideal for the market he envisions. It’s one of West Oakland’s major intersections, is served by public transportation and already has plenty of potential customers living nearby. But Ahmadi hasn’t been able to swing a deal with potential sellers.

“We were almost every time floored by the counteroffer and how dramatically more they were asking for their properties,” he says.
Some land in the area is going for three times the amount he offered — well above its assessed value, he says.

Ahmadi’s offers were sad, says George Kim, who helps manage the West Grand Shopping Center owned by his parents — one of the seven properties Ahmadi tried and failed to purchase.

Kim sympathizes with Ahmadi and agrees that the neighborhood needs a grocery store, but Ahmadi’s offers weren’t even close to what Kim wanted, he says. Recently, he says he was offered more than $9 million for the land. Ahmadi couldn’t offer even half of that.

A housing development is going up across the street from his shopping center, and Kim says he will probably wait until it’s finished before deciding whether to sell.

Ahmadi says he doesn’t blame property owners for holding out for more cash. He says that’s the “American way.”

“The problem is, it has a greater negative impact on the community,” he says.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time
The idea for Ahmadi’s People’s Community Market spun off of a West Oakland community food organization he founded called People’s Grocery. The organization focuses on food justice programs and has brought cooking classes, produce deliveries and a community garden to West Oakland.

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Opening a full-service grocery store looked like a promising venture in 2011. Ahmadi raised $1.2 million from nearly 400 Californians, most of whom were East Bay residents, he says. His efforts were even featured in the New York Times.

The Times article was written in the summer of 2013. Ahmadi’s fundraising campaign successfully ended later that year, around the time West Oakland property prices and rents were just taking off. Ahmadi has been trying for the last 18 months to find property to buy or lease, but he has failed. It was just bad timing, he says.

“What we did was shift to accepting that we’re going to have to pay an exorbitant price to get a piece of land in this neighborhood,” he says.

The City’s Role
The city could help pay for a site. But that would be controversial, says Renee Roy Elias, a volunteer with the Oakland Food Policy Council.

“Do we want taxpayer dollars to go towards this very, very overpriced piece of land?” she asked.

Elias would like to see the city get creative with how it supports equitable access to food and possibly offer more incentives, like tax breaks, to local healthy food projects.

“That would set an amazing precedent for future projects like Brahm’s project,” she says.

The city could also assume a stronger role as mediator between entrepreneurs and property owners, says Elias. A few years ago the city worked aggressively to get a large Foods Co. store to move into West Oakland. The City Council even voted to use eminent domain to secure property from owners who wouldn’t sell. The deal never panned out. But Ahmadi says he would like the city to work just as hard to help his project.

If Not the Government, Then Who?
The city has to be careful about what steps it takes to help local businesses and can’t take too many risks, says Ben Mangan, who teaches at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

“That’s good sometimes and that’s deeply frustrating at other times,” he says.

Mangan has researched the types of people who do take these risks. They’re called impact investors, and they’re usually philanthropists or others willing to put their money on the line for the public good, even though it could involve making a risky investment.

“You’re often competing in a marketplace where you may be the only one seeking that extra bottom line, and you have to work harder to achieve social impact while your competitors are just looking for a return on investment,” says Mangan.

Ahmadi says he thinks he’s found his impact investor — a former Oakland resident who went to Wall Street, made some cash, retired young and now is back and wants to help. Ahmadi won’t name him, but he says this potential partner, who would act as landlord until he’s repaid, is willing to pay well above market rate for land the grocery store needs. But it would be in a cheaper location than Ahmadi’s dream spot at West Grand and Market.

About a half-mile from that ideal location, at San Pablo Avenue and 32nd Street, Ahmadi is looking at a couple of properties where his market might be built.

But the area comes with more risk. Across the street, there’s St. Andrews Plaza, a compact concrete triangle sporting a few eucalyptus trees. Ahmadi says there is drug use, prostitution and violence around the park. Community groups have been trying to work with the city to find a solution to clean up the area, he says.

“I feel if this problem is here and we try to open our doors, the sense of a lack of safety will be a major deterrent to a lot of people shopping here,” he says.

Still, this is his best shot, he says. There are two property owners he needs to convince to sell in order to have enough space for his grocery store. One deal may be signed this week, he says.

The second property hasn’t been easy. He’s had no luck contacting the owner, and the city isn’t helping out, he says. If he fails to secure the second property, Ahmadi says, his longtime campaign to bring a full-service grocery to a community that badly needs one could be over.