Sunset Headquarters in Oakland’s Jack London Square (courtesy of Sunset)
How do you keep a 118-year-old magazine fresh?
By moving its headquarters to the Bay Area’s hippest city, of course. On Thursday evening, Sunset magazine threw itself a little welcome party, showing off its sleek new digs in Oakland’s Jack London Square.
Mayor Libby Schaaf stopped by. Brown Sugar Kitchen chef Tanya Holland gave a quick lesson on how to make her famous fried chicken. Belcampo CEO Anya Fernald, with daughter Viola in tow, showed up with platters of her company’s charcuterie. (The company has its main office in Jack London Square.) Senior Travel Editor and spirits enthusiast Nino Padova ladled out White Fang cocktails, named for Jack London’s most famous canine and featuring gin and absinthe from Alameda’s St. George Spirits. Through the wraparound windows of the second-floor loft, evening sunshine sparkled off the wind-rippled bay below, punctuated by the rumble of Amtrak trains rattling past on the nearby tracks.
It was all very Oakland local, a warm urban welcome all the more surprising for a business so recently relocated from its longtime home in Menlo Park. Designed by architect Clifford May in 1951 for the Lane family, then owners of the magazine, Sunset’s South Bay campus was built to be the company’s laboratory for Western living. Spread over seven acres, the ranch-style structure sprawled like an indoor-outdoor home, surrounded by meticulously maintained gardens reflecting every climate in the West. There was an airy adobe-style lobby, outdoor kitchens and entertaining spaces, a chicken coop, a wood-paneled test kitchen stacked with multiple ranges, all with a warm mid-century modern feel.
Fast-forward some six decades, and under the twin pressures of corporate ownership (Sunset is now under the aegis of Time Warner) and skyrocketing South Bay real estate prices, the campus was sold to realty investment firm Embarcadero Capital Partners in 2014.
And while saying goodbye to the magazine’s well-loved home was hard at first, the move couldn’t have come at a better time—or to a better place. According to Irene Edwards, the magazine’s new editor in chief, moving to Oakland was exactly what the company needed.
“This is our challenge, to evolve, to stay relevant,” said Edwards, who worked as the magazine’s executive editor from 2004 to 2008 and returned to the Bay Area from Brooklyn to take her current position four months ago. “I can’t imagine a better city for the modern Sunset. This is its audience,” she said.
Suburbs like Menlo Park offered a fresh, even revolutionary approach to everyday living in their day; now, Edwards believes, that excitement and sense of re-invention is returning to urban areas. And despite its undeniable challenges, Oakland is a vivid example of a forward-looking city trying to get it right, balancing a burgeoning tech sector without losing its deep commitment to diversity and social justice. “This is the modern interpretation of a city. Being here now, you know you’re at a turning point,” she said. “There are so many people building businesses, taking risks. There’s support for grassroots innovation here like in no other place.”
Pulled from the bucolic isolation of those tree-lined seven acres, the magazine’s staff—many of whom already lived in the Oakland area—are excited to become part of the neighborhood. Already, there are numerous food-based business headquartered nearby, from Belcampo and Blue Bottle Coffee to the Food Craft Institute training center and its annual Eat Real Festival. And while there may be rose-geranium macarons on display across the square at Miette and barrel-aged gin negronis at Daniel Patterson’s Haven restaurant downstairs, that hasn’t stopped Edwards from becoming a regular at Ben’s Restaurant, the nearby hole-in-the-wall that the East Bay Express calls “the best Chinese restaurant in Oakland that you’ve never heard of,” or chatting with the guys unloading broccoli and bok choy at the longtime wholesale Oakland Produce Market nearby. “It’s the best of both worlds,” she said, a big city whose neighborhoods can have a small-town feel.
For Margo True, who came to Sunset from the Manhattan offices of Saveur, the big draw is Oakland's rich culinary vibe. “I’m so excited to be immersed in the Oakland food scene,” she exclaimed while introducing Tanya Holland, a chef who, she says, “has done so much to communicate the living heart of Oakland to the world” through her popular restaurant, her cookbook, and her frequent television appearances. Sloshing chicken drumsticks and wings in buttermilk, then rolling them in seasoned flour, Holland spoke of how her Louisiana-born mother made fried chicken three times a week, to the chagrin of her then quasi-vegetarian daughter.
At the time, Holland had no idea that kitchen work would become her career, and that her most popular business would be based on the superiority of her own crisp and succulent fried chicken. Some 400 people a day come through the doors of Brown Sugar Kitchen on a busy day, and often it seems that every single person has come for the fried chicken and waffles.
“My goal is to feed people,” Holland said as she dropped pieces of chicken into a sizzling pot of hot rice-bran oil. “That turns me on even more than cooking.” True had suggested other dishes for the event: gumbo, say, or jambalaya. But Holland stood firm. “Let’s give the people what they want: fried chicken,” she said, paired with golden biscuits and a surprisingly light and tangy black-pea salad, bright with fresh herbs, roasted red peppers, and olive oil.
Lined with cream-and-white Heath Ceramics tiles, the new test kitchens are airy, bright, and Instagram-ready, with comfortable cork floors, white composite counters, minimalist white cabinets and butcher-block-topped islands. (They’re also ADA-compliant.)
Perhaps the biggest change for Sunset—known for its in-depth gardening advice and, of course, for the Western Garden Book, the bible for gardeners from Hawaii to Alaska—is the new separation between office and gardens. Test gardens are still at the heart of the magazine, and they will remain that way—only now, they’ll be at the Cornerstone, a retail, garden, art and events space up in Sonoma. Phase one plans--and plantings--are underway, said senior garden editor Johanna Silver, praising the work of Homestead Design Collective, advocates for drought-tolerant sustainable landscaping who are designing Sunset’s new outdoor spaces. There will a cocktail-ingredients garden, a backyard orchard showcasing year-round bloom and fruit, underplantings of bee-feeding pollinator plants, raised beds for edibles, test beds for the Sunset plant line, an outdoor kitchen for celebrating the wine country good life. Alethea Harampolis of Studio Choo has been tapped to plan a cut-flower garden. And while the digging is still underway, Cornerstone has already repainted its iconic, oversized chair sculpture in a bright Sunset orange.
“People are falling back in love with cities,” said Mayor Schaaf, noting how pleased she was that a magazine synonymous with Western living was now headquartered in Oakland. “We could not be more honored that you have chosen us as your new home.” And then, knowing her audience, she got right to the point: “Have you seen Tanya’s cheddar biscuits? OMG!”
Sunset will be debuting its new Test Gardens and Outdoor Kitchen at its 18th annual Celebration Weekend, May 14-15, at Cornerstone in Sonoma. For more information, go to Sunset Celebration Weekend.