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Oxbow Public Market aims to make Napa a destination foodie spot
By Brett Ascarelli
Steve Carlin is a family man in a hardhat. After selling the Oakville Grocery, which he ran for some 20 years, he moved his brood in 2000 to a town outside of Florence, Italy. As romantic as that sounds, a spate of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, in Europe had Carlin—not to mention the Italian government—worried. Therefore, once a week, he drove the hour all the way to Panzano, where there was a local butcher whom he trusted to sell his family clean meat.
For cold cuts, however, Carlin patronized a local salumeria, or deli. There, the retailer would ask him detailed questions, the likes of which no Safeway deli counter has likely ever been privy. For example, before slicing prosciutto, the meat cutter wanted to know when Carlin was planning to serve it: that morning, later that day or tomorrow?
"It made me understand," says Carlin on a recent morning in Napa, "why the experience of getting to know local merchants is so important. There's a lot about food we don't know, but there are a lot of people who do."
Fresh from this revelation, Carlin returned to the United States, and that's when he got a well-timed call from the developers of San Francisco's as-then-unrealized Ferry Building Marketplace. He agreed to be the project's manager, and since the renovated Ferry Building opened in 2003, Carlin has become something of a public-market visionary. He created Oxbow Management LLC in 2004 to bring this vision to urban areas that may one day include Santa Rosa's Railroad Square. Last fall, he broke ground on his company's flagship project: Napa's Oxbow Public Market, which will feature restaurants, a wine bar, a permanent farmers market and other goods.
At nine in the morning, it's no surprise that the construction site is already abuzz, but so is the neighboring COPIA parking lot, often so quiet. Impatient drivers scan for spots, so they can head to the farmers market underway across the street. Could all this activity portend new energy for the area?
Whirring noisily, heavy machinery fills the Oxbow Public Market's foundation, which is raised several feet above ground level to avoid flooding. Atop this platform, a metal skeleton structure soars into a pitch overhead. Eventually, this will be the main marketplace, a glass and brick affair done in the shape of a barn. At roughly 40,000 square feet, the whole complex will cost some $10 million to construct.
Stepping over stray bits of rebar, it's hard to believe that the market is slated to open in just a few months. Instead of giving an actual finish date, Carlin demurs, "We just use the generic 'fall' term." He says there are a lot of things beyond his control, like the whims of some 20 merchants and restaurateurs, plus farm-stand operators, who will soon inhabit the space.
Although the market will only be about one-third the size of the Ferry Building, it shares such commonalities as wine and cheese merchants, as well as the Fatted Calf charcuterie.
Smartly, Carlin has lined up some local businesses, Taylor's Automatic Refresher, for one. The chefs from Napa's neighborhood Bistro Don Giovanni plan a new, casual joint, Ria, there. Pica-Pica adds Venezuelan cuisine to the mix. Other purveyors include San Rafael's Three Twins Organic Ice Cream, Sonoma's Olive Press, St. Helena's Model Bakery and Long Meadow Ranch, the Bay Area's roving Roli Roti rotisserie, Petaluma's Whole Spice shop, North Bay vendors Tillerman Tea, North Bay photographer Steven Rothfeld's Kitchen Library and Napa's Anette's Chocolate Factory. Ten permanent stalls are being constructed to ensure a daily farmers market in the building.
Convincing merchants to lease space wasn't easy, especially at first. As this paper has reported, Napa Valley's prestige hasn't yet transferred to the actual city of Napa, which has struggled to poise itself as a destination in the shadow of tourism behemoths St. Helena and Yountville. "There was," says Carlin, "a lot of interest in coming to the Napa Valley, but there was trepidation about coming to Napa and next to COPIA—it's no secret they haven't performed to their expectations yet." But Carlin, who believes that both COPIA and Napa will turn themselves around, comes from a line of visionaries. His father was in the motion picture industry in New York and shopped Gone with the Wind around to some 22 different studios before one decided to risk it.
Grimacing, a construction worker struggles to lay a cement curb between the main hall and the future wine and cheese pavilion. Carlin plants his feet on the gravel nearby and says, "Imagine we're at the bull's eye." Pointing his arm like a compass needle, he gestures in each of the cardinal directions. Eastward lies COPIA and the future home of the planned 351-room Ritz Carlton (if it gets approval). Southward lies Oxbow School, the farmers market and the Napa fairgrounds. Downtown is just a short walk to the west, as are the Napa Valley Wine Train and Westin Verasa condo-hotel to the north. Finally, across the river, the 12-acre Oxbow Preserve nature park is planned. Carlin's compass routine must be pretty effective: his market is now 95 percent spoken for, with only two spots remaining.
But the real question is whether the Oxbow market will succeed.
Before the Ferry Building project was completed, Carlin says that almost all of the comments he heard came from naysayers. There wouldn't be any parking, would there? And pedestrians wouldn't be willing to cross six lanes of traffic to get there, would they?
And indeed, the Ferry Building wasn't an overnight success. Carlin says it took about two years before it made the list of important San Francisco destinations. Similarly, with the Oxbow market, Carlin says it's only a question of when, not if.
Right now, Carlin's biggest challenge is spatial finesse. "This isn't a traditional retail shopping center," he says. "There's a substantial amount of transparency—literally, but merchants expect a high level of privacy. We want it to be a seamless transition from one merchant to the next."
Carlin expects at least 1 million visitors annually, but thinks that Oxbow could easily draw double or triple that figure. The target audience includes three groups: Napa locals, some of whom Carlin hopes will come daily; neighbors from the region stretching from Calistoga to Vallejo and from Fairfield to Sonoma; and, of course, a share of Napa Valley's some 5 million tourists. But can tourists be expected to stock up on food and perishables? Apparently, yes. Seattle's famous public market, Pike Place, ships half of the fish it sells, according to Carlin.
Some North Bay locals have complained that shopping at the Ferry Building for food, much of which is practically sourced from their own backyards, is too expensive. But Carlin thinks that the reverse will be true at Oxbow. Why? There won't be a middle man, and locals will be able to voice their input (read: bargain) to shopkeepers directly. Therefore, he wouldn't be surprised if goods actually cost less at Oxbow than at the grocery store. (Considering that a basket of underripe figs were recently going for the dear price of $4 a basket at the Sonoma Farmer's Market, some are skeptical.)
COPIA, which owns Oxbow's land, will also provide parking for shoppers in its existing lot. Judging by today's crowd, it may not be enough. But Carlin is ever cheery. "There's never enough parking," he laughs, adding that visitors can park downtown and hoof it to Oxbow. "We don't want big parking fields here. We want to encourage people to park once and walk around.
"We're trying to change the way people shop on a daily basis," Carlin says, underscoring that he wants his markets to become community-gathering places. "It's all about knowing where your food comes from. Here, you can talk to the people who grew it."
To learn more about the burgeoning Oxbow Public Market, go to www.oxbowpublicmarket.com.
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