RICHMOND -- Food businesses are booming here, with large warehouse-based companies such as Blue Apron and Whole Foods expanding their operations in the past year, and mid-size businesses like Galaxy Desserts and Zoe's Cookies also flourishing.
"I think that the main reason, of course, is real estate," said Ruth Vasquez-Jones, president and CEO of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce. "We have some of the best, cheapest real estate in a very desirable area."
Indeed, Cassidy Turley Commercial Real Estate Services reported that vacancy in the Richmond warehouse market is at 4.3 percent, down from almost 7 percent at the beginning of the year.
This is all good news for Richmond, where the unemployment rate of 10.1 percent remains far above the national average of 6.1 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Edgar Perez, a 19-year-old who lives in South Richmond with his mother and two siblings, is one of the city's thousands of unemployed.
"It's been a rough three months," he said. "I just apply to everything I'm eligible for because I need something."
One of those applications was sent to Blue Apron, the New York-based food business that is expanding its fulfillment center in Richmond. The company put out the call for 400 new employees in Richmond last month, and Matt Salzberg, CEO of the startup, said the company has received thousands of applications from hopefuls like Perez.
The company buys fresh produce from local farmers and packages these ingredients into meal kits, complete with recipes, which it then delivers to homes. Salzberg said he chose to open the center in Richmond in 2012 because the city offered access to great workers and proximity to both regional customers and local farms.
Blue Apron pays good wages and is looking for all types of employees, said Salzberg, "from people to help us receive the food, check for quality, help us portion and package the food and up through office and management roles as well."
"We have a really great culture," Salzberg said.
So far, the company has hired 300 workers but is still looking for more, he said.
While there is no way to tell how many of those workers are from Richmond, Vasquez-Jones said Blue Apron approached the Chamber of Commerce for help attracting local staff.
Whole Foods Market Distribution Center also recently expanded, hiring 25 employees. About half of these are Richmond residents, spokeswoman Beth Krauss wrote in an email, while the rest are largely residents of the nearby communities of San Pablo, Pittsburg and Antioch.
Additionally, hopeful job seekers like Perez might take a look at Zoe's Cookies, a wholesale bakery that moved to Richmond in 1987.
"Zoe's Cookies is owned by a local female business owner, which started in a tiny, tiny warehouse," Vasquez-Jones said. "And now she's expanding it."
Zoe Smith, owner of the baked goods business, said she is increasing her warehouse space by about 30 percent, buying new equipment and adding three full-time employees.
"I had to do the expansion in anticipation of growth that's coming," Smith said.
Smaller food businesses are doing well, too. After being laid off by five employers in the space of three years, Richmond resident Rosa Robinson decided it was time to become her own boss. She opened Sweet Dreams Bake Shop right in her home kitchen.
Robinson makes everything from chocolate-dipped strawberries to custom cakes. One of her more recent creations featured Justin Timberlake's face on a teenage girl's birthday cake.
While Robinson isn't hiring any full-time employees yet, she does hire part-time workers to help her with large jobs.
"My business is still a baby," Robinson said. "It's growing so fast, and I'm just so happy with the progress and where I'm at right now."
By Sukey Lewis For the Contra Costa Times