With the holidays just around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about gifts for the foodie in your life. Many of the food artisans I’ve been profiling over the past couple of months sell their wares online. Or you can give the gift of a variety of artisan foods delivered to your door from a business like Maricela Yee’s Little Shop Artisan Box, which specializes in monthly gift boxes filled with goodies made by Bay Area food artisans.
When Maricela Yee moved to Oakland from Hawaii in 2011 she never thought she would start a food business, but she was excited about reaping the rewards of the Bay Area food culture. A former “flower girl” who sold flowers on the streets of Honolulu and Waikiki, Maricela took a chance and moved without a job and just an inkling that she wanted to get involved in the food scene.
Food had already been instilled in her by her family while she was growing up, particularly by her grandmother. As a child, she loved taking trips to Chinatown with her grandmother where they would explore different shops and search out the best noodles they could find. With her time off after arriving in the Bay Area, Maricela began her own explorations of the area’s farmer’s markets, experimenting with making her own pickles and jams from what she found, including making things like pickled burdock root or different varieties of kimchi. She also started playing with putting together unusual flavor combinations
“I loved going to all the farmer’s markets here, and I fell in love with the California agriculture. I loved all the fruits and veggies I could bring home,” she said.
But amassing jars and jars of pickles and jam proved to be more than what one person could handle.
“I thought, ‘I can’t eat all this. Do I want to sell it or give it away or what? And who’s going to want these weird flavors?’”
Maricela’s original idea was to do a community supported agriculture (CSA) type model where people could get a jam or pickle of the month in their CSA boxes. She applied to the Women’s Initiative and began their 11-week business intensive course and began putting together the business plan.
Then she realized she didn’t really want to do all the cooking herself or find a niche market to fit herself into. She felt that there were many more people out there that had the passion and drive to perfect a product over months or years and bring them to market. Why not sell their products instead?
“I just wanted to eat everything and share everything—to get those unique flavors that I would not have been able to come up with and share the stories that were coming from these jerky makers or artisans, their connections with the farmers, etc. I thought ‘I want to share,’” she said.
Part-way through her course at the Women’s Initiative, she changed course and decided to do artisan baskets full of locally made food products. Creating and curating food boxes would allow her to combine her loves of food and sharing with others, she said.
“I have a creative side, and I knew I could be creative and combine business and my creative sides with their [products].”
Maricela also knew that she didn’t want to do any of those old-fashioned cellophane wrapped baskets. Rather she wanted to do something that would fit with the Bay Area culture and also be environmentally sound. After seeing a sign about composting at La Borinqueña, she got excited and decided to make sure her gift boxes would be compostable so people could dispose of the their monthly boxes in a green way.
“The box is totally compostable—the insides and the inserts are also compostable,” she said.
Since Maricela knows that many people in the Bay Area are also looking for local ingredients, she looks for artisans that source their ingredients locally. Many of the ingredients her artisans use are also organic and gluten-free. “People care about their ingredients,” she says.
Little Shop Artisan boxes are paid for on a subscription basis, billed monthly. Three, six and twelve month plans are available, and Maricela can ship anywhere within the U.S. She also does corporate gifts, helping businesses to brand themselves with unique, local products. Subscribers can also designate their boxes to be given to others as gifts if they like.
“I have one person that sends something to someone else every month—to the veterinary hospital when their cat died, the dentist for pulling their teeth, a thank you for letting me crash on your couch. The [boxes] are not just for thank yous or happy birthdays. People are using them as a creative ways to share their love,” she said.
Maricela has worked with more than 90 Bay Area food artisans in the last two years, usually featuring five or six artisans monthly in each box. A different artisan is highlighted as the artisan of the month and featured products for each box are usually centered around a monthly theme, such as Valentine’s Day or summer barbecues. She also makes an Oaktown Pride box that features items made solely in Oakland.
Being able to share the enthusiasm and passion that local artisans have for what they are creating has been one of the biggest rewards of curating her artisan boxes, Maricela said.
“When you’re talking with someone about something they’re really passionate about—they were sharing that light, that spark and passing it on to me. I found it easier to share that rather than being in the kitchen and being isolated in this one thing. I wanted to share the cool exciting things that people are doing.”
What drew you to food?
My family. I’m surrounding by a lot of strong women, and we bond over food…it’s part of my culture. My grandmother told me to try everything, so I do, and I don’t expect other people to, but I think other people should, too. I love encouraging people to try new things.
I thought I came up with the idea, but I didn’t. But [others] weren’t focusing on the local, they were focusing on national. There’s so much going on here. I’m always meeting new people, putting together new things. It’s exciting for them and me—I feed off their energy. I love seeing the small businesses grow, and if I can help them, I love it—introduce them to new people and their product to new people.
How do you choose artisans to feature each month?
It really just depends on the season or the theme I want to promote. You know about Choctober? All chocolate items. I’ll ask what’s going on or coming up in the food community. I’ll ask [artisans] if they’re doing anything for Mother’s Day. I had a sausage maker and asked them if they could do a sausage for Mother’s Day. They tried to do rose petals. I try to create a very feminine box for Mother’s Day or a masculine box for Father’s Day. Bold flavors, really looking for unique items. So many people are doing unique things. I love going to food events and meeting people. Sometimes they’ll [artisans] will make an exclusive product for me.
For the holiday, I’m doing peppermint flavors…I go with the seasons. If it’s persimmon season, maybe its pickled persimmons. Or cherries—I did barbecue and cherries in July, everything went together and it was really great. I follow the pinwheel for seasonal fruits and vegetables—and then it makes sense when pickles and jammers are shopping with their farmers, too.
What kind of foods do your customers seem most interested in getting?
I get a lot of feedback for bacon stuff. It’s hot, it’s tasty, there’s a lot of people that like it. People are also asking for gluten-free products. We do vegetarian products for sure. If you say you want a vegetarian box, we can do that. Caramels. I have someone who only buys if there’s caramel in there. Most of them trust me to get good products. They trust me and are excited to try new things, so it works.
What are the most popular items you’ve featured?
Toasted coconut chips. Lardy tortilla chips. Jerky is a favorite from Oaktown Jerk—his stuff everybody has tried and they really like the Pineapple Basil. That’s in the Oaktown Pride box, which I’m running throughout the year. Also candied bacon caramel corn from Chunky Pig.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
Listen to your customers. Get feedback and use their feedback. I would say use surveys to get more understanding of what your customers want.
I have such a good time doing what I love to do because I can mix business with the persona. I will go to a food event, and yes, I’m eating, but I’m also networking and working with people. If you can mix the two [business and personal], it will make your work environment more enjoyable.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Doing it all yourself or having to feel that you have to be good at everything, even though you don’t or even though I keep telling myself I don’t need to be. I’m learning to call on experts, to source professionals.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
I get to eat and drink for a living! Just meeting lots of different people with lots of different experiences. Getting samples in the mail, going to food events—I love going to those.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
The first thing that came up to my head was oxtail soup, and I just found somebody who does it locally in SF and he makes it even better than my favorite place for comfort food from home. I’m kind of mad at him for ruining that comfort food for me! His name is The Munchies; they do oxtail soup and some Hawaiian favorites. His soup is better than Hawaiian soup, better than what I thought was the best. Really.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
I don’t think I should mention a favorite! I think all my artisans would get mad! ‘What I’m not your favorite?’ I don’t think I should mention anybody.
Little Shop Artisan Box
Photos courtesy of Maricela Yee, Little Shop Artisan Box.