Edible Monterey Bay

Edible Community: Watsonville Awakening

As a resident of the 95076 zip code, I’ve noticed some changes taking place lately. There’s an obvious hip factor emerging in what I’ve known as a predominantly working-class community. Young people and families are moving to Watsonville from surrounding areas to save money on rent, to buy homes and farms, and to start businesses. New artisanal food producers, eateries, cafes, wineries and craft breweries are popping up—and thriving. The question bears asking: Is Watsonville becoming the Brooklyn of the Monterey Bay?

While small-scale food and drink businesses are currently trending in Watsonville, the Pajaro Valley has a rich edible history that includes boom times with whiskey, apples, strawberries and the latest cash crop— raspberries. The earliest brewery in Santa Cruz County was the Pajaro Brewery, established in 1860. And Martinelli’s—which opened a new storefront in Watsonville last year—got its start in the Pajaro Valley back in 1868, when Stephen G. Martinelli made fermented sparkling cider with apples from California’s first commercial apple orchards.

But new food and beverage businesses are bursting onto the scene: My Mom’s Mole, The Green Waffle, Hidden Fortress Coffee, Corralitos Brewing and Elkhorn Slough Brewing, to name a few. And this prompts the comparison to other highly fertile and exciting food artisan hubs popping up outside more expensive and larger cities around the country, Brooklyn being the most prominent.

Next to the Watsonville airport an exciting new food and drink complex called The Hangar is taking shape. It includes a tap-room run by the folks behind Beer Thirty in Soquel inside a restored World War II era warehouse, a cluster of six shipping containers converted into eateries and an outdoor seating area with fire pits.

While tenants were still being lined up at press time, developer Brian Dueck said the urban-styled Hangar complex would include a coffee shop, juice bar and, hopefully, other artisanal businesses such as a bakery, ice cream maker and vegetarian food stall. He plans to open in the first quarter of 2018.

Watsonville’s new food businesses share a similar ethos—family recipes, cultural heritage, healthy convenience food and local, organic produce—and many can be traced back to El Pajaro Kitchen Incubator, established by El Pajaro Community Development Corp. in 2013.


El Pajaro Kitchen is filled with the sticky-sweet aroma of strawberry jam the first time I visit. At one of the 15 stations in the vast kitchen space, jam is being made from donated local, organic strawberries for the annual Watsonville Strawberry Festival. At another station, El Nopalito Produce is packing freshly trimmed and peeled nopales. Teresa’s Gourmet Foods is making salsa around the corner.

“Energy is booming here. There’s a lot of heart and there’s a vibrant movement in terms of wanting to change what Watsonville is,” says Cesario Ruiz, who manages the 8,000-square-foot commercial kitchen and also uses it to make his own sauces called My Mom’s Mole.

Executive director Carmen Herrera says small food businesses like My Mom’s Mole and Kitchen Witch Bone Broth (a former client) underscore a renewed interest in old family traditions, remedies and recipes—a reclamation and rebranding of local foods.

“I don’t want to take credit for things that are much bigger than us,” says Herrera, “but I think that programs like the kitchen help to brand Watsonville as a very interesting community, avant garde in many ways.”

She also points out that Watsonville’s location gives clients close proximity to local, organic produce and makes the kitchen central to the Monterey Bay area. Lakeside Organic Gardens is less than two miles down the road. El Pajaro Kitchen has had 40 clients since opening. New applications are constantly pouring in.


My Mom’s Mole’s Ruiz has been targeting the Watsonville market for his sauces this year, working with other local businesses like Elkhorn Slough Brewing and doing pop-ups throughout the county. He’s also branching out and applying to events in the Bay Area, such as the Eat Real Festival in Oakland.

“Sometimes it feels like a lot, but looking at the bigger picture, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to share my mom’s mole with the rest of the world.”

My Mom’s Mole will also be serving at the annual benefit dinner for Food What?! on Sunday, September 17. Food What?! is a nonprofit organization inspiring low-income and struggling teenaged youth across Santa Cruz country through meaningful work and healthy food. Ruiz sits on the board of directors.

Another food artisan at El Pajaro Kitchen is The Green Waffle, owned by Martin and Blanca Madriz. They created their signature green grab-and-go waffle because they were looking for healthy and convenient foods that they could eat and share with their three children. Blanca, who was born and raised in Watsonville, teaches math and science at E.A. Hall Middle School and knows that mornings can get quite hectic for parents.

Both Blanca and Martin had gotten into physical fitness and Blanca started making protein pancakes for herself that contained protein powders and artificial ingredients. Then she thought, “Why am I eating this if I wouldn’t feed it to my kids?”

They saw the need for real, healthy and convenient food products that were made without artificial ingredients. After about a year of trial and error, they arrived at the current recipe, which somehow manages to create just the right combination of crunch, tenderness and flavor with just oats, egg whites, spinach, bananas and either yams, cauliflower, blueberries or apples. Their kids, family and friends all approved.

Blanca and Martin love being in Watsonville and sourcing their ingredients locally. “It’s just great to be here, surrounded with all these food sources,” says Martin, who also speaks to kids at E.A. Middle School about how to start their own businesses.

While their product is flying off the shelves in the Santa Cruz area, the Madrizes see the need for more education in terms of nutrition in Watsonville. Their goal is to give back to their community and show people that eating healthy can be fun, creative and convenient. “We want the community to see our presence here, try new foods and think of their health and future.”

Then there are people like Amelia Loftus—owner of Hidden Fortress Coffee Roasting—who already have an established business but utilize the consulting aspect of El Pajaro Kitchen. Although she didn’t need kitchen space, she was able to get help with crowdfunding so that Hidden Fortress could get its doors open.

Loftus started roasting coffee while she was with the now-defunct Seven Bridges Cooperative, which she helped found and run for 15 years. Before opening her shop on Hangar Way, she roasted in small batches at her micro-farm, using solar power and propane, and did farmers’ markets and made deliveries in conjunction with a CSA egg program.

The mission of Hidden Fortress is to support the hard-working farmers who grow coffee. Loftus and her husband Patrick both have farming backgrounds. Amelia has roots in a Vermont commune—her childhood story is told in the book We Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New America. Patrick is straight from the west side of Santa Cruz, back when it was still farmland.

“I’ve found Watsonville to be a really supportive environment,” Loftus says. “When we first started building the café, I got a call from Kurt Overmeyer (the city’s former economic development manager) saying ‘Welcome, we’re so glad to have you.’ And it was really nice to receive that.”


While at first glance farm-to-table is a relatively new concept in Watsonville, the family-owned Gizdich Ranch has been getting people out into the field and all touchy-feely with their fruit for quite some time now. Second-generation farmers Vincent and Nita Gizdich were the masterminds behind opening the farm to the public with a “pik-yor- self ” berry field. Vince Gizdich, the current (third generation) owner, recalls that the neighboring farmers turned their nose up at this non- traditionalist idea.

But it wasn’t such a bad idea, because nearly a century later, people are still going there to pick their own fruit and buy pie. Gizdich points out an interesting fact: 7 out of 10 visitors who go out to the farm have a connection with a farm in their past. Visiting the farm certainly brought back my childhood memories of traipsing around u-pick berry farms with my mom and siblings (never mind that I put more berries in my mouth than in the basket).

You can also find Gizdich pies at California Grill, Lakeside Organic Gardens’ farm-to-table eatery, founded by owner Dick Peixoto and his daughter Ashley. Lakeside Organics is the largest family-owned and operated organic vegetable grower-shipper in the country. The restaurant, now located on Green Valley Road, was established in 2012 and features Lakeside’s organic produce, alongside locally processed meats, and local baked goods and wines.

Ella’s at the Airport, a bit newer on the scene, was founded with the same commitment to fresh, local food. Owner Ella King saw the importance of staying rooted in Watsonville—she loved meeting her farmers and being in the fields, doing things like pulling fresh kohlrabi out of the ground. “Our community is what makes us who we are,” she said at last year’s Event Watsonville, held at El Pajaro Kitchen.

Perhaps the hippest Santa Cruz County food business, fresh sauerkraut maker Farmhouse Culture, moved its facilities from the Old Sash Mill to the middle of a Lakeside Organic Gardens field in 2015. Founder Kathryn Lukas says it was a choice between Pajaro Valley and Oakland, but what made the decision clear was the proximity to the source of their cabbage.

She says, “We need to be in the fields, developing relationships with the people who grow our food.”

Lukas found the property—a production facility and farmhouse in the middle of 19 organic acres—and fell in love with it. Peixoto also saw the value in it and purchased the property with the understanding that Farmhouse Culture would become the tenant. The companies collaborated to do extensive renovations before the move, and Lukas has turned the old farmhouse into an innovation lab. Farmhouse Culture now sources much of its produce from within six miles of its facilities.

“Looking out of my window, where I work every day, I really see Steinbeck country—the area is so rich in food history and there is real potential for a food cultural hub,” says Lukas.


One of the local wineries featured at both California Grill and Ella’s at the Airport is Alfaro Family Vineyards. Owned by Richard Alfaro and his wife Mary Kay, this Corralitos gem was founded in 1997, when the couple bought an old 75-acre apple farm and began transforming the property into a vineyard. From just six acres, their vineyards have now grown to 56 acres, with more vines being planted this year.

Before that, the Alfaros owned a local wholesale bakery called Alfaro’s Micro Bakery, which operated from 1991 to 1998 out of the same building that El Pajaro Kitchen now inhabits. The central location was perfect for making deliveries throughout the Monterey Bay area as well as up to San Francisco, and Alfaro recalls that business was good.

But wine had been a lifelong passion and he had planted some vines in Corralitos. As Alfaro points out, fermentation science is the same, whether you’re working with bread or wine. “The hobby just got out of control,” he explains, and the family business thus transitioned from bakery to winery.

According to Alfaro, El Pajaro Kitchen couldn’t have a better spot than in the center of an organic farming community that provides all the right ingredients to work with. He’s also happy that more young people are starting small food businesses in the region.

More wineries and breweries are popping up around the area as well, including Wargin Wines, Freedom Wineworks, Corralitos Brewing Co. and Elkhorn Slough Brewing, adding to local veterans Storrs Winery, Windy Oaks Estate Vineyards and Winery, Nicholson Vineyards, Pleasant Valley Vineyards, River Run Vineyards and Alfaro.

Meantime, these artisans are finding themselves with a growing number of home-grown Watsonville-based food and drink events to participate in, such as those hosted by Annie Glass, Live Earth Farm and Corralitos Open Farm Tours, to name just a few.

“We’re just so grateful to be a part of the community,” Alfaro says. “We love Watsonville.”

Taking a moment to savor my green waffle with strawberry jam, I couldn’t agree more.The up-and-coming Brooklyn of the Monterey Bay? I’ll take it. And while there are challenges to overcome, the community is coming together to meet them with conviction, determination and true entrepreneurial spirit.