Food & Drink

Dreaming big and heading west: Sacramento restaurants look to make it in the Bay Area

A customer looks at the menu of Fish Face Poke Bar in Emeryville’s Public Market. Owner Billy Ngo founded Fish Face in Sacramento.
A customer looks at the menu of Fish Face Poke Bar in Emeryville’s Public Market. Owner Billy Ngo founded Fish Face in Sacramento.

Tomatoes, caviar, peaches, almonds: The Sacramento area long has sent its food products to grace restaurant tables of the ever-hungry Bay Area. But sending the restaurants themselves? That’s a new twist but an exciting one, as Sacramento artisans and restaurateurs expand into the Bay Area’s vibrant food scene.

For decades, Sacramento’s culinary landscape has been influenced — if not overshadowed — by our more refined and cosmopolitan neighbor. The Sacramento Valley has been a reliable food producer, thanks to the region’s agricultural richness, but rarely a tastemaker in its own right.

Recently, however, several Sacramento food businesses have opened outposts in the Bay Area. Chocolatier Ginger Hahn, whose L Street shop Ginger Elizabeth has found a loyal Sacramento audience, is the latest to make the move, cutting the ribbon on a new place in San Francisco’s upscale Cow Hollow neighborhood in November.

The opening is the culmination of a long-held dream for Hahn, who in 2005 started with a modest wholesale business funded by a $2500 credit-card loan. She opened her Sacramento retail space two years later. “San Francisco was always the plan,” said Hahn, who next has her eye on a cookbook and the international market.

Hahn is one of a handful of local food entrepreneurs who are dreaming big and heading west. Thriving Sacramento sushi chain Mikuni soon will open its first Bay Area location, a branch in Concord. Chef-restaurateur Billy Ngo last fall opened a branch of Fish Face Poke Bar (which has two Sacramento spots) in Emeryville’s bustling Public Market, which has been home to a branch of midtown pizzeria Hot Italian since 2012.

Ginger Elizabeth Hahn stands in Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates in the Cow Hollow in San Francisco. She has run a successful Sacramento chocolate shop for years. Paul Kitagaki Jr.

The expansions signal a shift in what largely had been a one-way migration. Bay Area brands and trends have been flowing into Sacramento pretty much since the Gold Rush days. Berkeley-based Peet’s Coffee, for example, planted its flag here decades ago; more recently San Francisco’s cult coffee fave Philz opened up at the Ice Blocks.

More complicated is the boomeranging of kitchen personnel. Many a Sacramento chef has done a stint in the Bay Area and then returned to open a restaurant in our less expensive labor and leasing market. Recent examples include Brad Cecchi of Canon (who worked at Michelin-starred Solbar in Calistoga) and Edward Martinez, pastry chef of the hotly anticipated Beast + Bounty, who worked at San Francisco’s two-Michelin-starred Lazy Bear before his recent return to Sacramento.

But precisely because of the high competition and high costs in the Bay Area — and perhaps also because of a lingering cultural inferiority complex — few Sacramento entrepreneurs have been bold enough to reverse the direction.

Perhaps the first to do so in recent memory was Hot Italian, the mod pizzeria that originated in midtown. Emeryville became an expansion destination after an East Bay real-estate broker who had enjoyed the restaurant's pizza in Sacramento contacted Hot Italian co-founder Andrea Lepore. (Hot Italian also opened a Davis branch in 2016; it closed recently.)

According to Lepore, Emeryville was a good fit for the restaurant's growth plan: “I always envisioned Hot Italian as an urban brand because of its emphasis on sustainability and bikeability,” she said. “Emeryville is right on Amtrak. It’s bikeable, and they had plans, which they’ve now finally completed, to make it more walkable.”

Emeryville is a major stop on the Capitol Corridor line, meaning there’s plenty of transit to and from Sacramento. It’s also home to a dense daytime population of workers at businesses headquartered in the small 1.3-square-mile city, including Pixar and Clif Bars. Thanks to these factors, Lepore said, lunch business was an immediate hit at Hot Italian. Dinner, however, "took a while to build," she said.

But these days the restaurant is doing well: “Emeryville is continuing to thrive,” Lepore said. “It has benefited from San Francisco being so expensive. People are moving out, and that migration from the city has also benefited Sacramento.”

Hot Italian’s beachhead by the bay was crucial in Fish Face’s expansion. When developers from City Center Realty Partners were looking to bring in more tenants for Emeryville's Public Market, Lepore suggested Fish Face to CCRP senior vice president Tim Bacon. “We have often found some of the best opportunities for tenants tend to be through word of mouth,” Bacon said. “We loved what Billy was doing and the reception has been great.”

Bacon said he sees the Sacramento connection of the two brands as an asset for the Public Market, given its proximity to rail lines and the increasing integration of the greater Bay Area and the I-80 corridor. “Sacramento is a location we have spent a lot of time cultivating,” Bacon said. “There are unique brands and concepts that have started there that we would like to look at, and Hot Italian and Fish Face are two great examples. We think there’s a lot of value in that (Sacramento) connection, and we publicize it.”

Opening in the Bay Area comes with both benefits and costs. Ngo, Hahn and Arai all cited an tight labor market and higher minimum wage and overhead as challenges. Hahn noted that her rent in San Francisco is roughly double the Sacramento cost. “Labor is higher and the market is tighter, too, though it’s super tight in Sacramento now too,” she said. “We’re starting to pay more, and we’ll see what we get.”

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Palet d’Or Chocolate is another featured item at Ginger Hahn’s Bay Area store. Paul Kitagaki Jr.

Ginger Elizabeth’s opening in San Francisco was delayed by what Hahn called “red tape” and “massive issues” with the store's build-out, thanks to its location in an older building and busy contractors: “There’s so much growth in San Francisco that smaller projects aren’t a massive concern,” she said. Despite the delays and an opening she called “really quiet,” she’s pleased with business so far: “We were able to get organized, and we’re growing every month,” Hahn said.

Arai, who hopes to soft-open the Concord Mikuni in May, is hiring staff now: “Labor is a lot more expensive and scarce,” he said. “We can’t find a chef. We might have to send people from Sacramento for a while.” His son Koki Arai, a recent UC Davis graduate, is managing the new restaurant, and has relocated to Fairfield to be closer. “He has to be creative to find good people,” Arai said. “It’s good learning for him.”

The Concord expansion is just the latest milestone in Arai’s journey of growing the 30-year-old Mikuni brand. With the Concord restaurant, Mikuni will have nine locations. “My new goal is to open 50 locations by the 50th anniversary of Mikuni,” he said. “Concord is a great step to figure out how fast we can move on. If that goes well, I would love to go Sunnyvale and the South Bay.”

Arai also mentioned Seattle and Portland as farther-flung locations that could see a Mikuni sign. “I think if we can open in California, we can open anywhere,” he said, alluding to the challenges of California’s tight regulations.

New locations, however, bring customers with different tastes and priorities. “You have to build the trust and the market all over again,” said Ngo, who noted that in Sacramento, the connection of Fish Face to his acclaimed sushi restaurant Kru was helpful in building the initial customer base.

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Sushi chef Taro Arai makes a sushi creation with rice, green onion, jalapeno peppers, lemon, tuna and rum that he called "Volcano Rice" at Mikuni restaurant in Sacramento on September 21, 2011.

Arai is starting the Concord Mikuni with a limited menu of bestsellers such as the chain’s BBQ albacore tuna and the “incredible” roll, with plans to gauge the market’s tastes before broadening the menu.

At Ginger Elizabeth San Francisco, Hahn is selling much the same lineup of chocolates, including her popular salty cocoa-nib brittle bars and sleek, stylish individual pieces. Adapting to her market mainly has meant slight shifts in emphasis: “Gifting is really huge in this market,” said Hahn, adding that some of her San Francisco customers have been drawn to the shop because they have previously received her sweets as gifts from Sacramento friends.

The physical layout of Hahn's San Francisco shop is bigger than her Sacramento store, with some extras like a refrigerated dessert case and areas where customers can sit. Hahn said she hopes to use the added space for events like the ice cream socials and hot chocolate gatherings that have been hits at the more cramped midtown shop. In San Francisco, she also has space for a future back patio — the next step she hopes to add. “It’s awesome, right?” she said, gesturing at the outdoor space.

At Emeryville’s Fish Face, Ngo found that Bay Area expectations for poke were at first a little different from Sacramento's. Bay Area consumers were more familiar with preset poke bowls, whereas Fish Face offers a build-your-own style that caught Emeryville customers off guard.

However, customers were quick to learn the ropes. On a recent sunny Wednesday, business was brisk as Emeryville resident Anna Miura waited for her poke bowl, the Kikusui special. “I usually build my own poke,” she said. “This is my first time doing a preset. I love coming here, and my husband comes all the time.” Asked if she realized Fish Face came from Sacramento, she said no.

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A bowl of poke is served at the Fish Face Poke Bar in Emeryville’s Public Market. Paul Kitagaki Jr.

Ngo said that most Emeryville Fish Face guests don’t realize the Sacramento origins of the tiny lunch counter, and there’s no reason they would — unless they read the menu’s fine print. But nevertheless, the Sacramento connection is growing.

Mikuni branches in greater Sacramento already benefit from Bay Area name recognition, according to Arai: “Thirty percent of our website hits are from the Bay Area, and we get a lot of people who stop on the way to Tahoe,” he said. Arai said he hopes expansion into the Bay Area will only strengthen that tie.

Although Sacramento exports to the Bay Area are still few in number, there are signs that they’re helping raise Sacramento’s culinary profile more broadly. Both Ngo and Hahn, for instance, were part of the Sacramento delegation that offered their fare at the high-prestige culinary event Pebble Beach Food & Wine on April 5-8.

These ambitious entrepreneurs have their sights on further growth — perhaps when they have recovered from the strains of long-distance openings. “Dreaming is free, so why not dream big?” said Arai with a laugh.

And that can only benefit Sacramento’s food scene, Ngo said: “I think it’s really cool for the city. If people in the Bay Area get a taste of what we’re doing, they’ll come here.”

Bay Area locations: Fish Face Poke Bar (5959 Shellmound St., Emeryville); Ginger Elizabeth (3109 Fillmore St., San Francisco); Hot Italian (5959 Shellmound St., Emeryville); Mikuni (2075 Diamond Blvd., Concord)

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