Until recently, Soba Ichi, a restaurant serving handmade buckwheat noodles, was the most public-facing part of the West Oakland eco-industrial park known as O2AA, or O2 Artisans Aggregate. But a store that opened there during the pandemic is bringing a bit more foot traffic to the site.
Started by childhood friends Matt Zimbalist and Peter Lollo, and Carly Fishman, who is also Zimbalist’s partner, Re-Up Refill Shop is the newest place in Alameda County to buy eco-friendly soaps and detergents for the household, along with other kitchen, bath, and personal care products, most of which usually come in single-use plastic bottles with the goal of reducing the amount of plastic that enters the waste stream.
“I’d like to see a whole bunch more businesses trying to think of creative ways to reduce our waste,” said Zimbalist. Customers can either use their own empty containers or use Re-Up’s glass jars and bring them to the site for refills. Two other businesses in Alameda County, FillGood in Albany and MudLab in Temescal, have a similar concept, though Re-Up also offers delivery by electric bike from Albany to East Oakland.
Since opening in April, they’ve kept over 2,400 plastic bottles and containers from entering the waste stream. That figure may seem insignificant when you consider the enormity of plastics thrown out or recycled in such a populous area as Alameda County, but Lollo offers what he calls a fun reference point: “If you placed those containers on top of each other, they’d be taller than four Oakland Tribune Towers.”
Zimbalist’s environmentalism was stoked while a student at Cal; he helped build Urban Adamah, an urban farm in North Berkeley. For Lollo, a fascination with waste as a child had him looking behind Target and other big-box stores to see what he could find, and his interest grew while also a Cal student. Later, when the idea for Re-Up came into focus, the two went looking for a site to host their shop. They settled on a re-used shipping container, giving them a lot of flexibility in location.
Why a used shipping container? “It supports our value of reuse, it’s a relatively affordable structure, and it let us build out the internals of the shop however we wanted,” said Lollo.
When Zimbalist, who has a contractor’s license as well as farm experience, first visited the O2AA site in West Oakland, he knew it would be a perfect fit.
Founded by designer and Buddhist priest Paul Discoe in 2000, the O2 Artisans Aggregate is a roughly two-acre site zoned for commercial and industrial use that houses 38 businesses; Discoe is also a design consultant for Japanese-style temples, restaurants, houses, and furniture.
While food businesses like Soba Ichi (and its predecessor, Korean cult favorite FuseBox) and newer popups June’s Pizza and Magnolia Mini Mart are the most likely to bring people to O2AA, visitors may not realize just how big the site is or everything being produced there.
What the various businesses have in common is that they’re all run by “artisans crafting high-quality products, whether it be woodworkers, metalworkers, soap makers, food makers, and others, who are using their hands and are committed to reducing waste,” said the site’s general manager, Aitan Mizrahi. “As a management company, we identify their inputs and outputs, as one businesses’ trash is another’s treasure.”
For example, Mizrahi said, the buckwheat hull that’s expelled after milling to make Soba Ichi’s prized noodles are used as stuffing for meditation cushions made by tailoring business Tada Furui, or Sacred Arrows.
In pre-COVID times, school groups sometimes visited the site to see all of its waste systems in action. Obviously that has stopped, and in general, the O2AA businesses remain off the radar for many Oaklanders.
“What I’ve learned in the four-plus years I’ve worked here is that there is this Japanese tradition that, if you need to know, you’ll know,” said Mizrahi. “Outreach and events are something we’d like to do more of, and after COVID, we hope to again.”
Other businesses at O2AA include Juniper Ridge, which makes oils, salves, and teas from wild-harvested products; the Coast Live Acorn Project, which turns acorns into cooking flour and oil; and Don Bugito Edible Insects, which makes snacks out of edible insects. There are also metal and woodworkers, Den Sake Brewery, and Billy’s Biodiesel car repair shop.
There’s also a farm on site, complete with greenhouses. When I visited, a farmhand was ladling huge scoops of what looked like muddy water onto growing crops, but was actually fertilizer made from fermented chicken poop. It was made by Everflux, another tenant. About 30 households belong to its Community Supported Agriculture program, receiving produce boxes in a partnership with Slow Food East Bay.
Zimbalist and Fishman first visited the site last year. Given their farming experience at Urban Adamah (Fishman still works there as director of marketing), O2AA was soliciting their help to build its agricultural program. While they didn’t move forward together at the time, little did they know they’d be working together so closely the following year.
“We realized that they’re really motivated about reducing waste on-site as well as upcycling their waste,” said Zimbalist, “which made it a perfect fit to be a community offering at the waste hub.”
Since opening at O2AA this April, the store received a $15,000 grant from Stop Waste, a public agency focused on reducing waste in Alameda County, to purchase a new storage container for their 55-gallon drums of soap, as well as their electric bike.
“They had a great application for first-timers,” said Meri Stoll, senior program manager at the Oakland-based Stop Waste. “It was a great use of money from our end, as we as an agency have really changed over the past year, focusing our grants more on initiatives trying to not create waste in the first place, rather than recycling, as there are so many instances where recycling is not the answer.” (And in a couple of months, Re-Up will be moving into yet another storage container, one that’s eight-foot by 40-foot, doubling their current size.)
Since Re-Up is one of the few O2AA tenants with a website to sell directly to consumers, they can also offer some of the products created on-site, like compost for West Oakland’s other urban farms.
They’re involved in the overall ecosystem of the site, with Lollo building an online store for the CSA and plant starts, Fishman coaching the CSA’s farmers and helping them develop their crop plans and seeding schedules, and the whole Re-Up team helping to manage and run the low-waste nursery retail side of things, selling plant starts in recyclable containers and creating compost.
They also started a grocery co-op for those who are living in cooperative situations with more mouths to feed than a single family, and don’t mind buying in bulk, a convenience especially since the bulk section offerings at many grocery stores are currently gone due to COVID.
About 380 people are enrolled in the grocery co-op, with an average of 50 placing an order twice a month. While shoppers can buy small quantities, like five-pound bags of flour, rice, or legumes, they are encouraged to buy 25-pound bags instead.
“Buying in bulk means fewer transportation miles, less overall packaging, fewer boxes to package all those smaller bags, saving money for the consumer,” said Zimbalist.
As for Re-Up’s future, its owners see it perhaps becoming a non-profit and community resource—much more than just a store.
“We see ourselves as a low-waste resource,” said Zimbalist. “We’re exploring fiscal sponsorship with a few organizations as we see ourselves as much more of an environmental justice organization than a boutique shop. Rather than have a for-profit enterprise in the conventional sense, we want to turn it into a cooperative to reflect our values of environmental justice.”
Correction: We previously presented the name of the restaurant Soba Ichi as “Ichi Soba” in two instances in this story. We regret the error.