New Rockridge Resident Cooks Up Local Food Tour

Thursday, July 10, 2014

When you stop and think about it, it makes perfect sense - a Rockridge Heritage and Walking Food Tour.

But it took a newcomer to make it happen.

Lauren Herpich and her husband Chris, who met on Match.com, moved here from Chicago a year and a half ago - a few months after they were married (a destination wedding in Napa). As they got on the plane to return to Chicago, they asked themselves, why?

Soon they were headed west, but unlike many young people, they didn't start out living in San Francisco and then head for the East Bay.

No, the two targeted Rockridge from the get-go, following up on an Oakland Hills friend's recommendation and their own Internet research. Like the rest of us, "We liked that we can walk everywhere, the weather and the great vibe," Herpich says.

It was mid-January and they felt fortunate to find a rental they loved in a building that straddles the Rockridge-Berkeley border. "We are the last address in Rockridge," she says. Their mailing address and garbage pick-up are actually Berkeley, since that's where the building's entryway is. But their DMV registration, voting and cable are Oakland where their apartment sits. "We feel like Rockridge picked us," she says.

On a Thursday afternoon in early June, I joined a group of about a dozen people on Herpich's second-ever tour. Most were friends and friends of friends who had come from Pleasanton and Pittsburg, Walnut Creek and San Francisco; one was visiting from Nebraska.

We met at the corner of Ashby and Tunnel Road (she is hoping to attract visitors staying at the Claremont Hotel), where she handed out morning buns from La Farine French Bakery (begun in 1977) and bottled water to help sustain us on the sunny, hilly, three-hour, three-mile route. "Let me give you some food. It's a food tour," she began.

Starting on the Berkeley side of Tunnel Road, we learned about and sampled specialty on-tap olive oils from the owner of Amphora Nueva, who said her family has been associated with olive oils for a century.

Then we headed for the heart of Rockridge, getting information about and tasting cheese at Market Hall (started in 1987), stuffed pizza at Zachary's Chicago Pizza (1983) and Dreyer's signature Rocky Road ice cream, reportedly created by William Dreyer in 1928 at Dreyer's original ice cream parlor.

Along the way, Herpich gave an animated history of Rockridge, its neighborhoods and iconic buildings and homes. Highlights were the Claremont Hotel, examples of Julia Morgan's architecture, and St. Albert's Priory at the end of Birch Court. On College Avenue, below BART's overcrossing, she pointed out the resident-made multi-tile mural memorializing the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm and its impact, including the tile signed by President Bill Clinton.

"I didn't really know what to expect," Sara Nolan, volunteer coordinator for Alameda Health System Foundation, told me. "I really liked the stop at the cheese shop" where head cheesemonger Juliana Uruburu gave us a glimpse into the world of cheese. "Knowing there was a woman architect" who rose to prominence so long ago impressed Sophia Tsiouris, a dental hygienist from Concord. And Sarah Mays, a Pittsburg resident, was excited to experience the area where her parents lived when they were newly married.

As a result of their feedback and that from other tours, Lauren has already altered the route to make it more direct while adding Ver Brugge Meat-Fish Poultry market (begun in 1947 and celebrating 35 years at its current location) to the list of stops.

Now is the time to tell you that the 33-year-old Herpich is no novice at leading food tours, although certainly new at designing one of her own. The New Jersey native led tours for Chicago Food Planet while earning her master's degree in integrated marketing communications at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. "I truly loved doing it."

Used to juggling several enterprises, Herpich was looking to add on to the digital marketing and communications consulting she does for small- and mid-sized businesses and her website "Why Not Girl!" named by Forbes Magazine in 2013 as a Top 100 Website for Women.

When she saw that Berkeley and Uptown Oakland had food tours - but Rockridge did not - and buoyed by learning that Rocky Road ice cream was concocted here, she thought: "Why not me? I've always been a ÔJill of all trades.'" In her mind, she fits right into what writer Nathan Heller described in the October 14, 2013 issue of the New Yorker magazine as "the three business card life" that marks the San Francisco area.

Putting the tour together required hours of research, digging into library archives and talking with long-time Rockridge residents. "But the biggest part was getting the businesses on board," she says. "A lot of the restaurants just didn't get it. We ultimately came up with the right time and the right process."

Tours operate at 2 p.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Sunday and cost $60 for adults, $50 for seniors and $30 for children 12 and under. Private tours can be booked at a higher per-person rate. A dollar from every ticket purchased goes to the Alameda County Community Food Bank.

Look for Herpich to add a sit-down restaurant experience to her offerings, come fall. She is considering a monthly progressive style dinner that would span a trio of Rockridge restaurants.

For the record, husband Chris, who has just one job handling sales for a digital advertising company, "is the cook in our house," Herpich says. But they are quite familiar with most of College Avenue's restaurants. "This is our neighborhood. We live here. We love to eat."

Your comments and suggestions for columns about your neighbors and neighborhood are welcome by emailing judyberne@att.net. More information on the food tour is at www.rockridgefoodtour.com or by calling 510/604-6546.