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How a Chicana-Owned Agency Is Shining a Light on the East Bay’s Diverse Food Scene

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A woman smiles sitting a a long wooden table inside a stylish restaurant with a red brick interior.
If Only Creative founder Marisa Sanchez-Dunning poses for a portrait at Popoca in Oakland. The progressive Salvadoran restaurant is one of her agency's clients. (Marissa Leshnov for KQED)

¡Hella Hungry! is a series of interviews with Bay Area foodmakers exploring the region’s culinary innovations through the mouth of a first-generation local.

You’d better make reservations ahead of time at Popoca, chef Anthony Salguero’s chic eatery in Old Oakland. The lively Salvadoreño spot has become such a popular hangout that you’ll likely run into friends randomly (hello, Ricky and Olivia) during dinner.

The reason is simple: Popoca’s elevated cuisine, cocktails and decor are a reflection of Salguero’s Central American origins, where his parents immigrated from and where he learned how to prepare tamales using freshly made wild duck broth.

You can taste Salguero’s expansive love for El Salvador in each decision. It’s in the hint of honey and spice in his naranja y betabel en alguashte. It’s in the lemony butteriness of his wood-fired pupusas de hongo. And it’s in the generous smattering of beans, rice, sour cream and escabeche that you should order to accompany the banana leaf-wrapped vegetarian tamales.

Thick purple pupusas cooking on the griddle.
Blue corn pupusas fry on the open grill. (Marissa Leshnov for KQED)

It’s also in the people he has surrounded himself with — the servers, bartenders, kitchen hands. Everything feels intentional, genuine and joyfully interconnected in the service of helping each guest experience Popoca. And that’s exactly what Marisa Sanchez-Dunning is committed to showcasing.

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As the founder of If Only Creative — a Berkeley-based creative agency that supports dope East Bay destinations such as Popoca, DAYTRIP and Burdell — Sanchez-Dunning is fiercely aligned with those who share her sense of community values. A homegrown Chicana, she predominantly works with small business owners of color. She carved her way into the scene with her relentless hustle, building her studio from the ground up by hiring other women of color that represent the Bay Area she knows. Beyond providing photography, social media management and branding for a handful of local outlets, Sanchez-Dunning hosts events to celebrate the Bay’s rich food traditions.

A restaurant server laughs as she takes an order from two customers sitting inside a sunny restaurant dining room.
KQED reporter Alan Chazaro, left, and Marisa Sanchez-Dunning order their meal. (Marissa Leshnov for KQED)

On a bustling evening at Popoca, despite a persistent rainstorm, I connected with her to discuss her role as a connector in the East Bay’s diverse food and bev world. I’ll be clear: I don’t typically meet with creative directors, PR flaks or other folks who work on the marketing side of the food scene. But,  like Sanchez-Dunning and Salguero, I believe in the importance of nurturing and expanding the local ecosystem, and seeing things from every perspective — and I can appreciate the unseen work that Sanchez-Dunning is doing.

In the Bay, sustaining your community can begin by simply sharing a soul-mending plate of pupusas with someone across the table.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Alan Chazaro: You’re not a foodmaker, but you work closely with chefs and small business owners throughout the Bay Area’s culinary scene. How did you enter the food world?

Marisa Sanchez-Dunning: My journey in food and hospitality started with my first job at 15 years old serving ice cream. Being in service, you get an appreciation for the whole spectrum. Eventually, I became a waitress. When I was 20, I worked at Peet’s and Scolari’s. I was working doubles, closing one shop late at night and opening another the next day. It’s all about the people you meet. You become a family, a community, and you realize how small the industry is here. That’s part of the Bay.

In college, I entered as a bio major, then I switched to journalism and ended up in marketing. I most enjoyed the creative classes: branding, design, photography. When I entered the 9 to 5 world, I started with branding and design agencies, and then I veered off to start my own agency through trial and error. I learned that my passion thrives the most in the food and bev industry. Bars, cafes, restaurants, CPGs.

A CPG?

Oh, my bad. Consumer Packaged Goods. It’s an annoying acronym (laughs).

Word. That’s very corporate-y.

I honestly try to stay away from that (laughs). For me, food is where [my agency] thrives creatively. That’s what we’re genuinely passionate about. As far as I know, we’re the only Chicana-owned agency doing this in the Bay. In my industry, I’m kind of like the only one that looks like me doing what I’m doing and supporting the clients that I’m supporting. And I think being in the Bay, there is an appreciation and excitement around seeing a Chicana. There’s a connection to our community.

Cara cara orange slices and beets topped alguashte is one of the small plates offered at Popoca in Oakland, Calif., on March 22, 2024.
CREDIT: Marissa Leshnov for KQED (Marissa Leshnov for KQED)

What have you noticed working in the local food industry? Are there any trends right now?

It’s really a mix, and I love that. One thing is that everyone is working their asses off. Places like Popoca are what I support. There’s a specific group of people in the Bay that don’t have any major investors, who don’t come from tons of privilege and tons of money. That takes a certain amount of working your ass off to get where they’ve gotten, and I see that. Those [business owners] have to think authentically and genuinely about every decision made, from working with me to their hiring practices and their vendor sourcing. They make sure everything is in line with their values. That’s also how I operate, for better or worse. Luckily I have a team of amazing women who are helping me out. It may take longer, and it may be harder, but it’s more gratifying. To be real, as a business owner in the Bay working in food and bev, it’s not easy.

We all can only do so much, and it can be draining. Finding that balance and intentionality is crucial. How can we keep our money and time in places that are deserving? And how can we increase access to experiences like Popoca?

100%. I love going to places like this to support them. That’s basically what my entire role is with visual assets, videos, photos of the food and drinks. There’s so much beautiful storytelling on the plate. We’re in a digital world. If someone tells you about a spot they like, you’ll probably pull out your phone and check Instagram. Even just sharing that on social media or sending a text to your friend, it goes a long way.

When you realize like, Oh shit, this person is nixtamalizing corn and making their own masa? You’re making your own in-house crema from scratch? And not only that, but it’s also being sourced intentionally? I fuck with that. I don’t want to take the easy way and work with corporate, and neither do a lot of [the foodmakers]. And there are lots of barriers to that, or even to these businesses being able to hire someone like me. Budget is the biggest one. It’s a Catch-22.

Hands holding horchata with star anise inside a wooden bowl.
Popoca’s peanut horchata topped with star anise. (Marissa Leshnov for KQED)

What keeps you going?

The goal is to employ the community. Working with people who may look like me, but more importantly, who think like me and move around the world like me. There’s a secret superpower to thinking that way. And there are certain businesses in the Bay who are doing that and helping to build their communities. Here at Popoca, there’s an intentionality in trying to invest in Old Oakland. I love the dedication and inspiration that they get and give here. Same with Jo’s Modern Thai [in Oakland’s Laurel District]. The owner was born and raised in that neighborhood. They want to get that area popping. It’s not like Temescal, which gets all this attention. But these other areas deserve to have that elevation.

Oakland, and the Bay as a whole, can be overwhelming with choices. And there are different perceptions people have about going to certain areas.

I had a friend visiting from out of town and told them we were going to eat dinner in Oakland, and they asked, “Is it okay to go?” And that’s sad. It’s a whole thing. The city of Oakland has been branded in an unfair way.

Bags of ground corn are seen in stacks near the bar for Popoca’s house-made masa corn flour in Oakland, Calif., on March 22, 2024.
CREDIT: Marissa Leshnov for KQED (Marissa Leshnov for KQED)

People who have never lived in Oakland always seem to misunderstand it. But part of that intentionality you spoke about is in how you help these businesses get visibility.

I try to always get people to try new spots, to come meet me at this restaurant or that bar or whatever. It’s in my blood to bring people together, and through the studio I’ve found a way to do that in a way that I’m proud of because of the real relationships I’ve built. This isn’t transactional. It’s like having homies with boundaries. It’s nice.

What do you have coming up next?

I’m actually working with [Popoca chef] Anthony Salguero to host a  Cinco de Mayo dinner in this space in collaboration with chef Jacob from [the Chicano pop-up] My Friend Fernando. There’s also a local painter, Alex Sodari, who will be giving away his prints. It’s a dinner with art and community. Everyone sitting at the same table. I love what I do on a day-to-day, but I’m always thinking of how to drive more impact than just being a creative agency. How can we bring more people together? If we’re not doing that, then what’s the point?

The exterior facade of the restaurant Popoca, with ornate columns and large windows extending the length of the building.
The exterior of the restaurant. (Marissa Leshnov for KQED)

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If Only Creative’s special Cinco de Mayo dinner will be held at Popoca (906 Washington St., Oakland)  on Sunday, May 5. The event is part of If Only’s private dinner series, El Otro Lado. Tickets are available online.

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