BERKELEYSIDE — From bakers and roasters to artists, there’s a story behind each of the local businesses at the Dec. 9 Berkeley Holiday Gift Fair.
The origin story behind Johanna Sedman’s Scenic Made bakery goes back a generation, to the warmth and comfort of her mother’s kitchen. In 1980, Sedman, only a few weeks into life in a college dorm, had started to despair over the near-ubiquity of packaged and convenience foods.
But a few weeks in, deliverance arrived: a care package of her mother’s homemade cookies. It made her an immediate celebrity — and a woman to know. “It was an instant way to make friends,” she said.
So it was only fitting that when her son Zach went off to college three years ago, she got out the whisks and baking pans and followed in her mother’s footsteps, sending him a full box of homemade treats. It wasn’t long before Zach’s friends began requesting their own boxes, then the friends of Zach’s friends, and so on down the line, until she officially founded her business a few months later.
It was easy to see why: the commercial alternatives were, well, not much more than free-range grab bags from any gas station convenience store. “You should have seen what was out there… If you Googled ‘care packages for college students,’ it was all Doritos and jerky and microwave popcorn.” The antithesis of her care packages.
“Everything in our boxes is 100% organic, from farmers and suppliers I know. Everything is a reminder of home — we can even customize the inside cover with a photo of their family or pet. Everything says ‘love’.”
Sedman is one of the 25-plus local businesses that will be participating in this year’s Berkeley Holiday Gift Fair next Thurs., Dec. 9, 4-7 p.m. at The UC Theatre. Organized by the Berkeley Chamber, the fair is made possible through sponsorships from the City of Berkeley Office of Economic Development and Minuteman Press.
Although Sedman’s exclusively mail-order business model was well-suited to weathering the pandemic, it still left her feeling disconnected from the wider Berkeley small business community and the community members who support it. In the ‘Before Times,’ Sedman was a regular at Oakland First Fridays and other festivals.
Due to the mask and sanitation requirements, Sedman won’t be passing out samples. Instead, she’ll be selling full-size packaged cookies. Not a bad adaptation. After all, she notes, “whole cookies are bigger.”
For James Spohn, owner of Uncommon Grounds, the Gift Fair also represents a welcome green shoot after a year that had been crushing for the small-batch coffee roaster. “We lost a lot of our wholesale customers: our offices, our cafes, some markets. But the biggest hit was feeling like we’d lost our voice.”
One of the first Berkeley small-batch coffee roasters, Uncommon Grounds in West Berkeley was an almost accidental entity. In 1983 its original owners literally stumbled upon a 1950s-era cast-iron Probat UG22 roaster — the Stradivarius violin of coffee roasters — in a garage. The machine has inspired an almost mythic reverence among staff and roasters to this day. “We all believe that our secret weapon is that antique roaster,” Spohn said. “That’s why our coffee has such unique flavors. Those flavors just can’t be produced by new roasters.”
Spohn came out of retirement last year to take over the business after the death of his son Jameson, a celebrated roastmaster who purchased the shop in 2010. It was a steep learning curve for Spohn, with new accounting systems, computer systems and supply chains. But it had one bit of sweetness that kept him going: learning about how many lives were entwined with his son’s. People talked to him about Jameson’s “cause coffee” donation program and how he was an early advocate for fair trade coffee and fair treatment of workers.
“I have people who have been coming in for 30 years who have been enlightening me about him,” Spohn said. “It’s very touching. I wouldn’t have that otherwise.”
At the Gift Fair, Spohn will be selling Uncommon Grounds holiday gift packs with two coffee blends and a tea. He wants to see people, and for people to see Uncommon Grounds, back doing what it has always done, staying true to its ethos of local, independent, and small. “That’s our credo. We’re a small Berkeley company that never wants to be anything other than a small Berkeley company known for producing exceptionally fine coffees.”
For Polymer Garden jewelry maker Arbel Shemesh, the start of the pandemic left her feeling like a change was needed. While she had her Etsy shop and was an active member of ACCI Cooperative Gallery in Berkeley’s North Shattuck neighborhood, the cancellation of local fairs and festivals robbed her of new exposure and, even more important, personal interaction.
“When I make jewelry, I’m thinking of people. When there’s no interaction on the other end, there’s not that creativity. It’s not as much fun.”
As a stopgap, Shemesh pressed her rarely used sewing machine into service making masks. “It offered me a connection,” she said. “It made me feel relevant.”
Although Shemesh’s jewelry photographs beautifully online, there is a tactile element to in-person shopping — how the polymer clays feel on the skin, how various beads and gems pick up light — that simply cannot be captured any other way. “The sensory element is so important,” she said. “You try something on and, almost instantly, it can feel like part of your identity.”
At the Gift Fair, Shemesh will have a shoji screen, table and mirrors set up to do just that — and she’s having trouble containing her excitement. “I’m fired up. I’m back to making things. It’s reconnecting.”
The fair may be one of the few holiday shopping outings that won’t be affected by global supply chain shortages. “With this, there’s no supply chain. It’s us, in Berkeley, bringing things to you. In Berkeley.”