A Force of Nature

By Steph Rodriguez

I had the pleasure of interviewing actress Danielle Moné Truitt, who stars as Sgt. Ayanna Bell in the new NBC drama series Law & Order: Organized Crime, opposite Christopher Meloni and Dylan McDermott. Did you know she’s from Sacramento? Not only is Truitt from the River City, but she gives credit to the B Street Theatre for her professional theater start. She splits time between New York and Los Angeles these days, worked with the iconic John Singleton and even gave a Disney princess her likeness. I spoke to Truitt about some of her favorite memories growing up in Sacramento visit my Arts&Culture Features’ section to see more.

Connecting through laughter

Photo courtesy of the Sacramento Comedy Spot

By Steph Rodriguez

When Sacramento comedy clubs could no longer host audiences indoors during all of last year’s uncertainties, venue owners and the comedians who fill their rooms continued to do what they do best: make people laugh.

Much like with distance learning and working from home, comedy went virtual with live stand-up, sketch and improv shows hosted through online platforms such as Zoom and YouTube Live or popular streaming services like Twitch. Comedians quickly adapted and embraced new ways to reach audiences across different mediums, all to connect through laughter.

And while some venue owners and comedians predict virtual comedy shows will continue as a new way to access live comedy, many anticipate more opportunities for outdoor stand-up showcases and an increase of indoor events as entertainment restrictions continue to loosen across the country.

Laughing From Home

For longtime stand-up comedians like Ngaio Bealum, who’s made a career out of making people laugh for nearly 35 years, how comedy is delivered and how it’s received will continue to evolve with the times. But whatever the format, Bealum says he’s ready to show up and share jokes.

“One of the cool things about online comedy shows that I love is that if you want to do a show with your homies, you don’t have to fly everybody from L.A. or Seattle to Chicago or wherever,” Bealum says. “You just call them up and be like, ‘Brah, are you busy today?’”

Ngaio Bealum, a stand-up comedian for nearly 35 years, was the co-host of the Netflix cannabis cooking competition Cooking on High. Photo courtesy of Katy Karns

Bealum transitioned to hosting online comedy shows early last spring through the all-digital venue Nowhere Comedy Club, founded by comedians Steve Hofstetter and Ben Gleib. With travel logistics no longer a burden, Bealum organized monthly virtual stand-up shows that featured a healthy blend of Sacramento comedians like Becky Lynn and Wendy M. Lewis with national headliners such as Margaret Cho, Brian Posehn and Greg Proops.

“The thing about an online comedy show is you get the response, but it’s not as visceral. There’s also a different approach to the way I present jokes online because the camera’s right in your face and your timing is a little different,” Bealum says. “As opposed to just there’s a crowd, there’s a mic, there’s a barstool, here’s some jokes. The production for a lot of comedy has changed. I think that’s really the interesting thing.”

Although ticket sales for online shows have slowed down as more people become vaccinated and are willing to be more adventurous, STAB! Comedy Theater owner Jesse Jones believes streaming stand-up, sketch and improv shows will continue to be an integral part of his business model.

“I was fortunately already trying to stream all of our stuff every weekend anyway,” Jones says. “We got ahead of it a little bit because the last weekend before we had to shut down was the first time we had streamed everything we were doing. So it actually worked out pretty well.” …

Read the entire story, Connecting through laughter. Published in Sacramento Magazine’s July 2021 Issue.

Beauty in the darkness

Artist Lin Fei Fei Photo by Ryan Angel Meza

By Steph Rodriguez

As an artist, she paints as a way to understand humanity and the complexities that haunt us all as individuals across cultures. Through shades of dark charcoals and strokes of soft whites, the shapes of contorted faces and human skulls slowly pop from more than 100 canvases dedicated to the visual concept behind Lin Fei Fei’s last exhibit, “The Distance Between Black and White.”

There’s beauty in the darkness for Fei, and if you look closely enough, you may find yourself swept up in one of her paintings, tapping into the fluidity between light and dark and what binds us all as humans: our emotions.

“At first, I was just curious about what we’re made of as humans, as far as personalities and humanities. I just want to find out what the truth is,” Fei says. “Skulls for so many different cultures represent death. But for scientists, skulls are studied because it’s our foundation. It’s a place where we can put our thoughts and brain. This is who we are, what we’re built of. I’m not necessarily using the subject as a representation of death or darkness. I hope people recognize it as a foundation of who we are.”

“Introspection Chapter 5,” Guadalajara, Jalisco Photo courtesy of Lin Fei Fei

Born in China, Fei recalls touching her nose and studying the shapes of eyes as a little girl before drawing them on paper. At just 7 years old, she knew she wanted to be a professional artist.

Fei graduated from the prestigious Luxun Academy of Fine Arts in Northeast China. As a student, she traveled the world and learned centuries-old tempera painting techniques in Italy using stone powder, egg whites and tree oil. Through her studies, she developed a respect for art history, mixing her rugged elegance with classical approaches.

“For me, oil painting is a very graceful, elegant material,” Fei says. “Acrylics are cool, and other materials are cool, too, but oil can maintain history.”

With a wanderer’s heart, Fei turned down an opportunity to teach at Luxun Academy and moved to the United States in 2015. Besides her partner at the time, Fei says she didn’t know anyone so she began selling art on the street before linking up with Blue Line Arts Gallery in Roseville and eventually branching out into Sacramento’s tight-knit art community.

“I usually try to work with galleries and museums, but when I moved to America, nobody knew who I was,” she says. “For me, it’s all a fun adventure. I feel very accomplished by starting from nothing and becoming something. I just always want to keep humble and keep doing what I’m doing because life teaches me how to maintain who I am. I always remember where I came from.”

In 2018, Fei was tapped to participate in the Wide Open Walls mural festival, an annual event in which local and traveling artists from all over the world paint fresh murals on businesses throughout Sacramento. Fei was assigned Holy Diver, an independent music venue on 21st Street in midtown.

In China, Fei says, graffiti and street art don’t sit well with the government or police. She was thrilled at the opportunity to cover an entire building in her unique aesthetic. It was her first public art piece in the United States.

“I hadn’t done a mural before in public, so I didn’t know what to expect. It turns out, people really liked it,” Fei says. “I enjoy interacting with people on the street because there are no boundaries. When you’re out in public, your work is given to everybody. I love how people stop by and talk to you, from different ages to different cultural backgrounds. Everything’s a surprise.” …

Read Beauty in the Darkness in its entirety here. This article published in Sacramento Magazine’s June Issue.

Slide Into Their DMs: Sacramento Bakers, Chefs Build Successful Pop-Ups Through Social Media

Claryssa Ozuna, owner of Hella Good 916, makes tacos for pickup at Esther’s Park in Sacramento on Saturday, April 24, 2021. All photos by Andrew Nixon

By Steph Rodriguez

People connect through food. Whether that’s breaking bread across cultures or sharing the warmth of a family recipe, food connects people to memories worth savoring.

During a pandemic, the way in which people use food to connect changes.

In Sacramento, everyone from professional chefs to home cooks and cottage bakers rely on social media as a means to introduce people to their food. It’s a simple way to post weekly pop-up menus filled with photogenic bites that are quickly devoured by die-hard followers.

“It’s like a treasure hunt. People like this speakeasy culture where you have to know about it,” says Claryssa Ozuna, owner of Hella Good 916, a weekly pop-up that specializes in quesabirria tacos and homemade tres leches cakes — all of which sell out just as quickly as they’re made.

“You have to know what day, you have to know what time, and then it’s a matter of getting your order in before they sell out. So it’s this exclusive experience and this unique content that you can share with other people.”

Ozuna shares Hella Good’s menu with more than 2,000 Instagram followers who pick-up orders on Friday afternoons. As a licensed caterer with over a decade of experience working in various kitchens — including fine dining to bars and cafes — Ozuna says she easily makes at least 300 tacos on pick-up days.

On those days, she sets up shop in South Sacramento, crisping rows of corn tortillas on the grill before covering each with mounds of shredded cheese and generous portions of savory, slow-stewed beef. It’s a crispy, melty, umami mouthfeel that’s enriched by dipping each bite in Ozuna’s flavorful consumé, a deep red, unctuous beef broth that smacks with warm spices.

“It gets pretty crazy sometimes, but I really love doing it,” she says. “I’m like the kind of person that loves to go, go, go. So, when the orders are flowing and we got a bunch of things going on, we’re thriving.”

This social media-influenced, pre-order business model is relatively new and has opened a path for many with big food dreams to cut overhead costs and break into the local industry on their terms. For these chefs and bakers, selling delicious fare was not only a way to make ends meet during the pandemic, but also a way to reach new people and offer a taste of who they are through their unique menus. …

Read Slide Into Their DMs in its entirety here. This story originally published April 29, 2021 with Capital Public Radio.

Taste of Normalcy

John Bowler sorts mandarins at the Flower Farm in Loomis. About 260 acres of mandarins were harvested in Placer County in the 2018-19 season. (Photos by Debbie Cunningham)

By Steph Rodriguez

Annie Bowler grew up running through her family’s 8-acre orange orchard in Ojai in Ventura County. She recalls tending to her family’s small vegetable garden and helping her late brother, Tom Martin, pour wine at the Paso Robles Wine Festival, which he started in 1983. Her family’s roots are embedded in California soil.

Now Annie and her husband, John Bowler, own and operate the Flower Farm in Loomis with 6 acres of mandarin oranges and an additional half-acre that has malbec grapes, other fruit trees, vegetable gardens and colorful flower beds. It’s also home to the Flower Farm Inn; Flower Farm Cafe; and Flower Farm Events Barn, which, before coronavirus restrictions, hosted large weddings.

“This land has been farmed since 1905 continuously, so our soil is very fertile,” Annie says. “There’s been plum trees and, I believe, a pear orchard for a while, and then in between there was cattle and sheep.” The Bowlers are members of the Mountain Mandarin Growers’ Association, which promotes agritourism for its roughly 30 mandarin farms throughout Placer County. 

Mandarins and other citrus are a commodity of local pride in Placer County, which has hosted the annual Mountain Mandarin Festival since 1994. But the county’s 2020-21 citrus season — which includes mandarin, navel and blood oranges; Meyer lemons; and grapefruit — has been a bit different. According to the Bowlers, the longer, hotter summer days meant their mandarins started ripening at the end of October, earlier than normal.

Rich Colwell, owner of Colwell Thundering Herd Ranch, says demand for citrus has increased, and “We’re having a very good year.”

“Frankly, because it’s so warm, what has impacted it is we never had citrus in October,” Annie says. “It’s usually the second half of November and like (around) Thanksgiving before we start selling. I didn’t even imagine we were going to be ready to have mandarins. This is the earliest ever.”

The area’s citrus farmers say they are surviving despite the early harvest and the coronavirus pandemic, and they appreciate their customers’ loyalty. As farmers and event organizers adapt to climate change and the ongoing spread of the pandemic, mandarins have offered a bright taste of normalcy during such grim times.

Mandarin Sales Are Soaring

About 260 acres of mandarins were harvested in the rolling hills of Placer County in 2018-19, according to Corrie Larsen, deputy commissioner of the Placer County Agricultural Commission. Mandarins were valued at an estimated $3.3 million in the county’s 2019 crop report.

Carol Arnold, CEO of PlacerGrown, an organization that connects residents with locally grown produce through farmers markets, says there are more than 80 mandarin growers in the county, and fresh produce sales were higher in 2020 than previous years.

“It’s kind of like making lemonade out of lemons. I would say that the most surprising, marvelous thing that has happened is how flexible and adaptable the farming community has been.”

CAROL ARNOLD, CEO, PLACERGROWN

“It’s kind of like making lemonade out of lemons,” Arnold says. “I would say that the most surprising, marvelous thing that has happened is how flexible and adaptable the farming community has been. Their willingness to cooperate with a wildly changing regulatory environment has been amazing.”

She says mandarins are crops that are naturally more bountiful some years, with 2020 yielding a heavy crop, and last year also had high demand from customers seeking natural ways to combat the cold and flu season during a pandemic.

With more than 800 mandarin trees over multiple orchards, Rich Colwell of Colwell Thundering Herd Ranch in Penryn says he has experienced this increased demand for fresh citrus, so he pivoted his marketing strategy to include online orders as well as more outreach to high-end markets such as Corti Brothers in Sacramento and Oliver’s Market locations in Sonoma County.

“We have switched this year to more wholesale, and we’re willing to drive farther than we would typically drive, because we know there’s going to be demand in those places for our product,” Colwell says. “We’re having a very good year. The fruit is good, it’s heavy, it’s sweet.” …

This article was originally published in the January 2021 Issue of Comstock’s Magazine.

A Double-Edged Service

Third-party delivery services help—and hinder—restaurants during COVID-19

Diana Dich, whose family owns Happy Takeout in Sacramento, says some delivery service drivers keep the food for themselves. Photo courtesy of Diana Dich

By Steph Rodriguez

Restaurateur Derar Zawaydeh initially signed up for DoorDash as a means to combat “dead time” during the day, as in those gaps when indoor service is slow and employees are still clocked in with little to do. Zawaydeh, who owns five Burgers and Brew locations from Sacramento to Chico as well as Crepeville in Midtown Sacramento, says he has come to rely on DoorDash even more during the coronavirus pandemic.

“You come across times in the day where you still have employees, but they’re not doing much,” he says. “So we were trying to fill that with delivery services. It works really, really well with our concepts like with our burgers, not the crepes.”

For Sacramento-area restaurants operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, the hits just keep on coming. Many restaurants were quick to adapt to ever-changing dining restrictions in order to keep doors open. But besides the challenges associated with a quick pivot from indoor to outdoor seating, takeout and curbside delivery, some establishments point to another difficulty—third-party delivery services.

When the pandemic forced restaurants to rethink how to reach their customers, many turned to DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats and similar services for their built-in fleets of delivery drivers. Yet the commission each company takes per order, a range between 20-40 percent, has many wondering if these services are truly helping their business or taking advantage of an unfortunate situation.

“Honestly, I personally do not like them very much because what they charge is outrageous,” Zawaydeh says. “I know people that are being charged 35 percent. When you pay 35 percent of your sales, what are you making? That’s crazy. They charge the consumer as well. They take money both ways.”

For Zawaydeh, once outdoor seating is full and orders start stacking up in the kitchen, he says his managers at all Burgers and Brew locations have the authority to turn off the app to better serve their dining customers. “I’ve come to realize that it was affecting my business, it was affecting the customers who were in the place because orders were taking long,” he says. “If we’re busy, we simply put a stop to it because it’s the least moneymaking and it’s affecting the people that are in the restaurant, so why should I be spending another 20 percent and my customers are not happy?”

Drivers Gone Astray

Besides the commission each delivery service receives, restaurant owners, including Zawaydeh, say there are a number of ways rogue delivery drivers take their slice of the pie. On one occasion, a driver arrived at Burgers and Brew on R Street and showed the employee a pickup order on his smartphone. The order was then handed over and the driver left.

Restaurateur Derar Zawaydeh says managers at all Burgers and Brew locations have the authority to turn off third-party delivery once outdoor seating is full. Photo courtesy of Derar Zawaydeh

Later that day when a customer complained about a missing order, Zawaydeh found out that the driver showed his employee a screenshot versus the actual live feed of the purchase. Meaning, the driver who initially showed the employee his smartphone wasn’t the true carrier and simply received a screenshot of the order from a second driver with real-time access to Burgers and Brew to-go orders via the delivery app. It’s a lot of work for a free burger, but it’s a hustle that Zawaydeh won’t fall for again. Now, all third-party affiliated orders are heavily vetted before any food leaves the restaurant.

Over in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood, Diana Dich, whose family owns Happy Takeout, says not only do the high commission rates leave a bad taste in her mouth, but she’s also experienced her fair share of mishaps with delivery drivers. She says some drivers sign up for a variety of apps and get a ping when an order is placed and rush to the restaurant in order to beat the true driver and keep the food for themselves.

“We’ve experienced this scam on numerous occasions,” she says. “We now require all drivers to show us their phone as well as confirm what is on the order, but some still slip by.”

Happy Takeout, a small Chinese restaurant, is bustling daily with customers waiting outside to pick up orders of steamy beef chow fun and sticky orange chicken. Most days, Dich works from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. just to keep her family business going.

“The problem with Grubhub is they do not keep a history of who was assigned to the order when drivers get changed,” she says, citing a problem referenced by several other restaurant owners. “So a driver can come in, have the order on the phone with our side showing their face and name. Then, a few minutes later, the driver will change on the tablet with no clue who took the food.”

Although Dich was able to negotiate the delivery service commission rate, she says not all companies are forthcoming with that information. “I would suggest no business ever sign up for their ‘promotions,’ which is how they get you,” she says. “The commission is negotiable, and of course, they don’t tell you that.”

From April through June, delivery orders increased 32 percent compared to the same time last year, according to a spokesperson from Grubhub via email. Food sales were also up 59 percent year over year. As these delivery service giants respond to ramped-up demand, some are taking steps to ensure these problems are fixed. At DoorDash, senior policy advisor Katie Witman says all drivers’ behavior as well as customer feedback are closely tracked.

“If the customer rates the Dasher poorly, we track that very closely and if a Dasher does not maintain a certain level of ratings they are deactivated from our platform,” Witman says. “So every customer has the ability to provide feedback on how their delivery experience went. We’re actually rolling out a great new tool for our merchant partners to see that feedback directly in the merchant portal and interact with customers directly.”

In cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, legislators capped delivery fees at 15 percent, helping keep costs low for struggling restaurants who use third-party services. At the state level, Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez authored Assembly Bill 2149, the Fair Food Delivery Act, and it passed the Legislature in August with bipartisan support. AB 2149 requires food delivery companies like DoorDash and Grubhub to have an agreement with restaurants before delivering their food as some third-party delivery services do not and display a restaurant’s food online anyway.

“This bill levels the playing field for small businesses by empowering mom-and-pop restaurants to have a say in whether delivery app companies can deliver food to their customers,” Assemblywoman Gonzalez said in a statement on her website. The bill now goes to Gov. Gavin Newsom for consideration.

Backed Into a Corner

On his days off, Executive Chef Adam Pechal says he doesn’t want to cook. In July, he launched two restaurant concepts, Cali Bird and Atom Burger — as well as the return of Tuli Bistro on Sept. 4 — all inside Tiger Bar and Food Hall on K Street. All orders are to-go, which Pechal says leaves him no choice but to use DoorDash and Uber Eats’ services to get his food out to the public.

“I feel like they’ve got us backed into a corner, so they’re just kind of getting away with everything.”

Adam pechal, restaurateur

“I don’t want to pay the extra money and I don’t want the restaurants to lose the money. I want to go give my money to the restaurants directly when I can,” he says of his experience using delivery apps as a means of research and as a way to buy local food. “I’m hoping through all this, there’s a rise in competition with these apps and they’re going to have to tighten up their game. I feel like they’ve got us backed into a corner, so they’re just kind of getting away with everything.”

Pechal hopes as the volume of orders increases across all of his restaurants, he won’t need to rely on delivery services and can do away with them altogether. He also plans to revamp Tiger’s website in order to direct customers to an app of his choosing.

“What will happen is, we direct people to the website and they can ideally order takeout and just order through our website online. Or, they click the delivery button and we send them to the delivery app of our choice,” he says. “I’m hoping, say six months down the road, maybe we use two apps instead of five. They have to be able to negotiate moving forward. They just don’t have to right now because everybody’s so desperate.”

PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 18, 2020 WITH COMSTOCK’S MAGAZINE

Sacramento Neighborhood Restaurants Are Struggling—And Also Seeing Huge Support From Loyal Customers

Victoria “Tori” Haggins at her restaurant, Tori’s Place. Photo by Andrew Nixon

By Steph Rodriguez

Phoebe Gutierrez recalls checking into Espanol Italian Restaurant every day after school when she was 13 years old. If she was thirsty, she’d slide behind the bar and use the soda gun. If she wanted more fries, she’d walk into the kitchen and drop a basketful into the deep fryer, listening closely as they sizzled. She even thought washing the dishes using the gigantic dishwasher was a treat.

For Gutierrez, now 33, these were some of the perks she fondly remembers as the granddaughter of Paula Serrano, who’s co-owned the East Sacramento eatery with her brother, Perry Luigi, since 1988.

Family-owned restaurants are the cultural gems of many cities. They offer teenagers and misfits alike their first jobs, nourish small staffs as well as neighborhoods, even sponsoring little league teams and hosting spirited, weekly gatherings for local bowling clubs.

But most of all, these institutions offer a sense of community, enjoyed over a home-cooked meal.

But as the coronavirus continues to spread, institutions such as Espanol continue to suffer, although some are seeing tremendous support from loyal neighbors and customers.

On August 3, the local institution served its dedicated customers one last time and closed its doors at 58th Street and Folsom Boulevard indefinitely. This ended Espanol’s unique and storied history as a place for hearty, family-style meals, dating back almost a century ago at its original location in Old Sacramento.

“I don’t see any mom-and-pop restaurant, small company being able to make it,” Gutierrez said of business during the pandemic. “I really do think we’re going to be stuck with Olive Gardens and all of the chain restaurants, because anything that is smaller — I just don’t know how they’re going to be able to sustain it.”

Espanol did receive a small loan through the Paycheck Protection Program in March, but it was only enough to help them through one payroll. Its bread and butter was hosting large parties that filled its dining room with lively chatter. But, with indoor dining prohibited, takeout orders just weren’t cutting the mustard.

On top of that, Gutierrez says the landlord raised the rent 30%. After much thought, Serrano, who’s 73, and Luigi, 62, decided it was time to hang up their aprons.

“I really think it’s the end of an era. I don’t think there’s any other restaurant, in Sacramento at least, that has that type of feel or ambiance,” Gutierrez said.

She describes Espanol as a place where you know what you’re going to get. “You knew the soup was going to be good. You knew the bread was going to be warm. You knew that you could go and get your half-carafe of wine and it was gonna cost you five bucks, because they haven’t raised the price in forever.”

Italian dinners between this Sacramento family will continue. Only this time, Gutierrez says, they will finally include her grandmother at the table.

“We can finally have Friday night dinner, which we’ve never had in my entire life,” she said, “because she always had to work.”

Fox and Goose Public House is open for outdoor dining. Photo by Andrew Nixon

The Breakfast Spot

The whiplash restaurants endured over the last four months, with ever-changing state and county regulations, will only continue to have dire impacts on an industry that heavily relies on patronage.

Fox & Goose Public House, which opened in 1975, went through three iterations of its restaurant since March, beginning with curbside pickup or takeout-only options.

“Our business was impacted quite dramatically in the fact that most of the people who actually come downtown to work were staying at home,” co-owner Jessa Berkey said. “So, a large portion of our patronage during the weekdays, who would normally be here doing business, were not here.”

Without weekend brunch crowds and Friday night live music, the oldest restaurant on the R Street block went from 46 employees to 28. Business did perk up once socially distant, indoor dining was back on the table in May, a time when Fox & Goose hired more staff to wait tables in its adjacent warehouse space.

The crew renovated that space and set up a full dining room with 33 tables 6-to-10 feet apart, allowing Fox & Goose to reach 78% of its normal table occupancy. Berkey says the expansion took two weeks to set up, and things looked promising. But by the start of July, indoor dining was banned once again.

Menus are sanitized between uses at Fox and Goose Public House. Photo by Andrew Nixon

“Our team just had to be really adaptive and flexible as we tried to process the information and see how best we could implement it,” Berkey said.

So Fox & Goose pivoted — again.

Through the city’s Farm-to-Fork Al Fresco program, which helps subsidize restaurant costs to move diners outside, the restaurant was able to expand its dining capacity by setting up additional tables on the sidewalk below its patio space.

Although its new sidewalk dining area needs to be set up and broken down at the close of each service, Berkey says it’s a great improvement to the carryout and curbside model of the past. The best part about seeing more customers, she says: hearing their individual connections to this longtime breakfast pub, which serves savory English-style platters and spicy bloody Marys.

“Everyone has their own personalized moment with Fox & Goose when you ask people. Everyone has their story,” Berkey said. “We’ve had a lot of people also reaching out to us about the fact that they had their first date here, or it’s a special moment for their relationship or their family. Being open for 45 years, it does create that relationship with the community.”

The Family Pizza Parlor

Friday nights at Luigi’s Pizza Parlor used to be filled with families dining over hot slices while their kids attacked the pinball machines in the arcade room. An Oak Park establishment since 1953, Luigi’s history with the neighborhood is vast and championed by regulars who appreciate the taste of its original family recipes and the hospitality its original owner, Celso Brida, offered them many years ago.

“Almost every day, we have someone walk in here and say, ‘I remember Celso helped me when I was younger right out of high school. I needed food, I needed a job,’” says general manager Kathryn Mast. “People come in here with so much history and love for Oak Park.”

In 2019, Luigi’s was purchased by a group of longtime customers who grew up eating its pizza and wanted to see the business stay open after Celso died in 2015. These days, the dining room remains empty as Luigi’s adjusted to takeout-only in March. The building, on the corner of Stockton Boulevard and 13th Avenue, doesn’t have the outdoor space to offer customers the option to dine “al fresco.”

Mast says Luigi’s also uses third-party delivery services such as GrubHub and DoorDash to reach those customers who don’t want to leave their homes, but the commission each company takes from orders cuts into their daily sales.

“We’re happy to be here, but it’s a struggle. Fortunately, pizza is a very to-go business,” Mast said. “We don’t have a delivery service in-house, so we have to use outside delivery services … but they take 30 to 45% of every order.”

To stay afloat, Luigi’s laid off half its staff, tightened the menu and is only open five days a week. Much like Espanol, rent is also a challenge. Sales are steady enough — but nothing compared to when the dining room was full.

Through it all, Mast says she’s happy Luigi’s remains open, and looks forward to a day where she can once again host families, and even the barflies.

“The social aspect is what we’re missing out on, those connections through new customers coming in who are new to Sacramento. Let me show you the bright, beautiful life of these older restaurants like Luigi’s, Gunther’s, Espanol and the list just goes on,” Mast said. “I love working here and it’s sad that we can’t serve our people.”

The Mom And Pop

Every day just before 11 a.m., the phone at Tori’s Place begins ringing nonstop, a sign that hungry customers are in the mood for Victoria “Tori” Haggins’ home cooking, especially her recipe for gumbo with a side corn cakes.

She opened Tori’s Place on Grand Avenue in North Sacramento in 2012 and quickly became a neighborhood favorite. Through a warm voice, Haggins admits its been tough operating her small business through the pandemic. But she also says the community support she’s received gives her hope that Tori’s Place will continue to be a neighborhood favorite for years to come.

“It hasn’t really impacted me too bad. I know a lot of other people aren’t doing really good, I’m not doing great, but I’m still getting steady people coming in and I thank God for that,” Haggins said.

Gumbo is a popular dish at Tori’s Place. Photo by Andrew Nixon

At Tori’s Place, everything is made to order, with her husband taking phone customers and her granddaughter and nephew helping out when needed. Haggins says she’s reaching 75% of what food sales were pre-pandemic, which tells her that people still have a taste for her comforting dishes, such as her fried chicken and pork chop combos with a long list of homemade sides.

“People mainly want comfort food and we all need to be comforted some way or another,” Haggins said. “I try to put love in all the food when I cook. I put lots of vegetables and I try to give them great portion sizes, too. I think people really appreciate it.

“And I know I appreciate just looking at a smile on someone’s face.”

PUBLISHED AUGUST 26, 2020 WITH CAPITAL PUBLIC RADIO

Rolling Thunder

Sac’s two roller derby teams combine forces to form an all-star league

DontFuckWithUs

The steady rumble of roller skates on a large flat track grows louder from inside a brick-layered warehouse on the outskirts of downtown. On a Tuesday evening in November, women enter the chilly building one by one carrying pairs of weathered skates and chunky duffle bags, plopping their equipment onto an old-fashioned metal bleacher. As soon as skates are laced and helmets are tightened, each person joins the routine, zipping through lap after lap.

derby practice 2

Photo by Nicole Fowler.

Off to the side, tattered boxes chock-full of old skates, helmets, knee pads and other odds and ends seem to tell a story. More than 40 women are gathered here to practice for competition in the sport of roller derby—and tonight marks some of the last sessions before everyone goes on a short winter break for the season. This practice also marks one of the first evenings that Sacramento’s top roller derby teams, the Sacred City Derby Girls and the Sac City Rollers, are practicing together since both the players voted to join forces after 12 years of being separate entities.

The decision to combine both high-level teams, once rivals on the track, was announced in October 2017. Now, this badass all-star team of athletes has a roster that’s more than 70 women strong and collectively known as Sacramento Roller Derby, and their new season is just beginning.

Stronger together

derbypractice3

Photo by Nicole Fowler

“Five minutes, ladies!” a toned, blue-eyed woman calls out from the center of a scuffed track inside an 11,000-square-foot warehouse. Her authoritative manner inspires laggers to quickly lace up their skates and get in a few warmup laps. It’s just before 8 p.m., and some women are skating in pairs, perhaps discussing their long workday, as James Brown’s howls echo off the walls. Others stretch their legs and arms as they cruise around the smooth surface to warm up their muscles.

Suddenly, the music stops and everyone gathers in a circle to take turns introducing themselves by the playful derby nicknames each woman has created for herself to expresses her persona and quirky spirit. The women also say what position they enjoy playing—blocker, pivot or jammer—the latter position being the one with the most glory. (See sidebar.)

Sacramento Roller Derby is a 100 percent volunteer-run nonprofit, with dedicated skaters taking on multiple roles within the league. Women sit on the board of directors or serve as treasurer, marketing director, donations coordinator, etc. Everything is governed democratically.

derbygirls

Photo by Serene Lusano

Annie Reksic, a 10-year veteran skater with Sac City Rollers, says the combined team has been “a long time coming.”

“Both leagues started around the same time within the same year, and we’ve always had to share sponsors and a fan base and resources throughout the Sacramento area,” Reksic says. “We both have a lot of the same attributes and goals, and we’ve had these discussions throughout the years about coming together and merging into one megateam.”

For skaters like Shock ’N’ Auburn, time spent as a pivot, blocker and jammer with the Sacred City Derby Girls gave her the experience to help others succeed by training and coaching women of all skill levels. She admits that when she first started, she made close friends with the floor because she didn’t know how to roller-skate whatsoever.

“I ran into the wall at tryouts because I didn’t know how to stop,” she recalls. “I fell a lot. But, they said, ’Well, you have gumption. If you want to come back, we’ll teach you how to skate.’ We practiced three times a week, and the days we didn’t practice, I would work on my stride and work on being comfortable turning around and work on all of the weird, little things that aren’t really the fun part of derby, but the necessary parts of derby.”

Ask any woman how she found roller derby, or how derby found her, and each will share a personal story that is as diverse as Sacramento Roller Derby’s roster. For Bobbypin Vixen, a blocker and pivot who drives more than 140 miles from Dayton, Nevada, to practice twice a week, derby is a sport her family does together.

“[My son] pushed me to lace up some skates at a time in my life when I needed change,” she says. “It took over a year to convince me to do it. After the first practice, spent mostly sitting on my butt because all I could master was falling, I knew I loved it. I needed it.”

Her 14-year-old son, whom she refers to as Peanut Butter Jammer, skates for a junior team in their hometown, and her husband, Jose CanSkateO, is also an official for Sacramento Roller Derby.

“Derby pushes me outside of my comfort zone,” she says. “Comfort zones are beautiful, but nothing grows there.”

We’re not G.L.O.W

Roller derby first experienced a wave of popularity in the 1940s, when its raised, banked-track marathons turned the game into a spectator sport in America, at a time when the bikini just started hitting the beaches and Mount Rushmore was finally completed.

It was broadcast live on television throughout the country to spur interest, but attendance and ratings started to decline throughout the ’60s and ’70s as attention shifted to a more theatrical version of the sport, where athletes donned flashy garb and adopted dramatic characters as found in men’s and women’s wrestling. Derby even staged matches: Picture the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (G.L.O.W.), with its scripted rivalries and cheesy costumes, on roller skates. It was short-lived.

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Photo by Serene Lusano

Serious athletes say the biggest misconception about modern roller derby is that the sport consists of women who wear fishnets and booty shorts and purposefully elbow their opponents in the face or send them flying into cement walls.

These imaginative assumptions irk athletes like Lolz Lemon, a blocker for SRD who’s on the mend from a broken-leg injury last year. She sternly points out that elbowing is first and foremost illegal, and fishnets are highly impractical during games.

“When derby began, there was definitely a niche market that was very G.L.O.W.-like,” she says. “It was just as important to win the after-party as it was the game, like, who can drink the most or party the hardest. But now, this avant-garde sport is one of the only highly competitive women’s sports out there that women can easily join everywhere.”

While there is no elbowing allowed, roller derby is a contact sport. Two teams with five players each skate in a pack, counter-clockwise, on a flat track. As the jammer tries to break free and lap the pack, blockers try to make that difficult. There is a lot of hockey-style checking involved.

Miley Makes U Cryrus, a 43-year-old blocker for SRD and mother of two boys, says the sport of roller derby helped her get out of the 9-to-5 rut, and that her sense of self was rekindled by skating with her newfound friends on the track.

“Derby was something that made me identify as me,” she says. “I’m not just this person who just goes to work. I’m an athlete. It’s identified me as being more than my sons’ mom. This is something I do for me, but it also transitions to my kids because they are also young athletes. I think a lot of my perseverance through derby and through injury is reflecting on them and showing them the positive side to athletics at any capacity.” …

READ THE FULL COVER STORY: ROLLING THUNDER. Published in the Sacramento News & Review on February 8, 2018. 

Raise a Glass!

The edible insider’s guide to Greater Sacramento area craft brewers

raise a glass

Photo by Raoul Ortega

Jackrabbit Brewing Co. (West Sacramento)

Known for: Belgian, English, and German-style beers

What to try: Saison, Square Hare Belgian Sour Quad

With plenty of wild jackrabbits hopping around the more industrial areas of West Sacramento, Chris Powell, co-owner of Jackrabbit Brewing Co., says the brewery’s name came naturally. What didn’t was the equipment. Once a lease was secured, Powell and his three fellow brewery owners — his brother, Scott, as well as Ed Edsten and Kevin Hull — bought some old dairy equipment from Craigslist and taught themselves how to weld. Together, paycheck to paycheck, they built their own brewery system. It’s a true, built-from-the-ground-up tale.

“The whole thing was funded by the bootstraps,” Powell says. “We did everything the hard way, but I’m proud of what we built from nothing. It was just us.”

Jackrabbit sold its first kegs in 2013, and since then, the DIY brewery has been developing craft beers that find balance between full and subtle flavors. This can be tasted in its popular Saison, which uses a particular strain of Belgian yeast that’s more than 500 years old.

“It’s tart, very dry, and it’s got some noticeable wheat characteristics with a little bit of stone fruit and apple flavor to it that come from the yeast,” Powell says.

Jackrabbit’s Square Hare, a dark and malty Belgian-style quad, earned No. 1 in the Best of California Commercial Craft Brew Competition 2017 at the California State Fair. Measuring at 11.3 percent alcohol by volume, it’s the perfect winter beer to sip by a cozy fire.

“We’re really passionate about beer and all the different flavors you can create, and the science and the history of it,” he says. “It’s just a really cool thing to delve into.”

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Beers from Bike Dog Brewing Co. Photo by Angel Perez

Bike Dog Brewing Co. (West Sacramento, Sacramento)

Known for: Bike- and dog-friendly taprooms

What to try: Mosaic Pale Ale, Dog Years IPA, Milk Stout

Bike Dog Brewing Co. opened its second taproom in Sacramento in September 2017, but its original location in West Sac still is where all the brewing magic happens.

Co-owner A.J. Tendick says he’s a year-round IPA drinker and noticed a huge difference in flavor and quality once he started brewing batches at home.

“With IPAs in particular, freshness matters so much,” Tendick says. “A week-old IPA is considerably different from a month-old IPA. Ten years ago, when I would buy beers at the popular beer store, they would hold them on a warm shelf, which is terrible for flavor stability. But when you brew your own, you get this new hop flavor and aroma, which I wasn’t finding on the shelves.”

Besides its variety of hop-forward IPA varieties, Tendick says another popular beer is Bike Dog’s Milk Stout.

“It’s got this really fantastic blend of coffee and chocolate notes that are just natural from the roasted grains,” he says. “It’s pretty low alcohol, and it’s got a bit of lactose for that hint of sweetness, and it’s such a nice, easy-drinking beer.”

This winter, look for Bike Dog’s Wee Heavy, a Scottish ale that will warm up any cold evening, as well as its Double Mexican Hot Chocolate Milk Stout, which is sort of like a Mexican hot chocolate with cinnamon, a little bit of spice, and cocoa nibs, all at 9 percent ABV. …

The Sacramento area’s rich beer history dates back as far as the 1840s. So it’s no surprise to see the Farm-to-Fork Capital’s craft beer movement surge over the last 10 years. With more than 50 local breweries from Davis to Nevada City perfecting their award-winning recipes, some of the West’s tastiest brews are found right here. From the ever-popular India Pale Ales, with their bitter, hop-forward mouthfuls that often incorporate seasonal fruit for balance, to the darker pints of porters, stouts, and brown ales, Sacramento knows and loves beer. Here are 10 of the area’s craft breweries to visit and savor.

Sudwerk Brewing Co. (Davis)

People's Pilsner CAN Photo (1)

Photo courtesy of Sudwerk Brewing Co.

Known for: German-style craft lagers

What to try: People’s Pilsner, Fünke Hop Farm Saison

Opened in 1989 by Dean Unger and Ron Broward, Sudwerk Brewing Co. aimed to be America’s answer to imported beer, and it was, especially throughout the ’90s. Sudwerk, pronounced “sood-verk,” even managed to survive the recession. In 2013, Trenton Yackzan, grandson of Unger, bought Sudwerk to keep the family legacy alive and to reintroduce the city of Davis and beyond to German-style craft lagers.

“I was four when it opened,” Yackzan says. “My grandpa and his business partner were just two German guys who wanted access to beer as it tasted at home because, at the time, there weren’t many craft breweries.”

In 2009, Unger was going to close the brewery, but Yackzan saw an opportunity.

“We are now focused on redefining what people think about the American lager,” Yackzan says. “The market’s clearly pretty saturated with IPAs and ales and hazy beers. We want to show people a different side of beer because that’s what craft brewing is about. It’s discovery and education and finding new and innovative styles that you never knew existed.”

The University of California, Davis Master Brewers Program also is housed on site at Sudwerk. So if craft beers are your forte, check out the program and learn from one of the region’s oldest breweries. …

READ THE FULL STORY: RAISE A GLASS. Published in Edible Sacramento magaine’s Drinks Issue January 1 – February 1, 2018. 

 

Zero Degrees of Separation with 98 Degrees

One-fourth of the ’90s boy band opens up about meeting his heroes and his new Christmas album

98 Degrees - Let It Snow Press Photo by Elias Tahan

From left: Jeff Timmons, Nick and Drew Lachey and Justin Jeffre bring back that ’90s cheese by forgetting how to sit in chairs.
Photo courtesy of 98 Degrees

It was the golden era of boy bands, and 98 Degrees was unlike the rest. Other groups in the ’90s like ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys had been assembled by major labels, but 98 Degrees formed organically: Brothers Nick and Drew Lachey, along with Justin Jeffre and Jeff Timmons, started the group with heavy R&B and soul influences. Then, 98 Degrees was discovered backstage at a Boys II Men concert when they sang a capella for a radio station. After that performance, the band signed to Motown records in 1998.

Timmons caught up with SN&R to share what followed for the group of friends: a duet with one of their biggest influences, Stevie Wonder, for the soundtrack to the Disney movie Mulan; a couple of opening gigs for Janet Jackson on her Velvet Rope tour; the platinum-selling album This Christmas. After a total of 10 million records sold, 98 Degrees went on a decade-long hiatus starting in 2003. But now, the (boy) band is back together. They’ve just recorded a new holiday album, Let It Snow—released on October 13—and launched a 31-day tour. SN&R chatted with Timmons about the group’s days on Motown, the innocence of the ’90s, and his love for hard rock music like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses.

How did it feel to get back in the studio with everyone to record Let It Snow?

We had an amazing time. This Christmas was an album that stood out in the past, and it was always a perennial success for us. We like holiday albums because we can step away from the pop-stuff and do a little bit more harmony-based music with cooler arrangements and a lot of orchestra. We really wanted Let It Snow to match the previous album, and I feel like we did it.

Boy bands were all pop in the ’90s. Was it hard to incorporate that genre into your music as an R&B group?

Our original record that we did when we were on Motown was very R&B as opposed to pop. Of course, the times changed, and then the Backstreet Boys came out and pop was more of the style as opposed to when we were originally out in the late ’90s, early 2000s. So, we sort of morphed our sound from R&B. … We were really influenced by groups like the Four Seasons, the Temptations and Boys II Men. I think doing a Christmas album reflects more of that kind of sound. And on Let It Snow, we have all of it. We have like a Beach Boys sound and even a Chuck Berry sound, so we feel like we have everything on it.

When you were first signed to Motown, who were you starstruck by?

When you think of Motown, you think of Berry Gordy, and you think of all these groups, but we were heavily influenced by Boys II Men. We wanted to be just like Boys II Men. We wanted to be on Boys II Men’s label and all that because they had that throw-back harmony. If you remember, they had a song called “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” out and it was an a capella song. We fell in love with that, and we were hoping we’d be discovered like that. And we got discovered at their concert when we were singing a capella. So, it’s a part of our history as well.

Tell me about the duet with Stevie Wonder.

It was an honor. But, not only that, it was Stevie Wonder with Disney. We got to shoot a video with him and hang out in his trailer where he had all kinds of musical equipment set up in there. And he had his harmonica with him the whole time and he couldn’t have been more gracious, and humble, and amazing. It was another dream come true. There were a lot of things that we got to do that were a real blessing to us and that’s one of them.

What’s changed in music since the ’90s for you?

I think the music in the ’90s was really great. I mean, there was a mix of R&B and pop and this kind of this explosion with 98 Degrees, Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, Britney [Spears], Christina [Aguilera], and you had a bunch of great R&B music out there. But as far as like the innocence of the time, it was pretty cool. It was pre-9/11, and the world has changed since then. I think the most important thing about it for me is those fans that were there for us in the late ’90s have evolved with us. I carry a part of it with me in my career. I have fans that remind me of things all the time when they post stuff on Instagram with our frosted tips and our big, baggy jeans. You can’t escape it.

It’s no secret that 98 Degrees is in good shape. How many crunches do you do a day?

(Laughs.) Not enough. I was up all night working on some other music. I actually need to get back in the gym. Crunches, I’ve never been a fan of. I choose to not eat food instead. (Laughs.) It’s definitely not the healthier route.

Name a musician or band that would shock fans that you’re into.

We’re guys from the Midwest and Ohio, so we grew up with all these soulful groups. But we also grew up with Warrant and “Cherry Pie” and Quiet Riot. I think Metallica is one of my favorite bands that folks wouldn’t assume that a group like ours would like—or Guns N’ Roses. We’re, like, mad fans of those guys.

ZERO DEGREES OF SEPARATION WITH 98 DEGREES was originally published in the Sacramento News & Review November 16, 2017.