Mobile businesses: one solution to rising real estate prices in Bay Area


It was Saturday, April 2, 2016. Ariana Marbley had just set up shop for her new entrepreneurial venture: a pop-up flower stand called Esscents of Flowers.

Esscents of Flowers

Esscents of Flowers (Photo courtesy of the Laurel Cyclery)

Her stand was outside of Sequoia Diner, an Oakland restaurant popular for its weekend brunches. The line to get a table regularly extends down the sidewalk on MacArthur Boulevard. Earlier that spring, Marbley saw those long lines as an opportunity for her new flower business in Oakland’s Laurel District.

“There’s a lot of traffic on Saturdays and Sundays,” Marbley said. “Everybody waits outside to be seated. This was perfect for me.”

Sequoia Vennari, co-owner of Sequoia Diner, told Marbley last March she could pop up in front of her diner. Andrew Vennari, another co-owner of the diner and Sequoia’s husband, added: “We definitely let people do pop-ups a little bit here.”

Over the next five months, Marbley set up her pop-up business every first and third Saturday. Her partnership with Sequoia Diner proved to be a successful way to test the market for the demand for fresh flowers in the Laurel, she said.

“I always had a connection with the giving of flowers and seeing what that looks like as far as the recipient receiving the flowers,” Marbley said. “I grew up in East Oakland…There was no access to flowers. I wanted to be able to connect the two and provide the fresh flowers and recreate that feeling of giving the flowers.”

For now, Esscents of Flowers is Marbley’s passion project and a part-time job. With time, she hopes to establish a steady clientele and enough capital to make the venture full-time and transition it into a mobile flower business.

“Right now I’m in the process of starting to put together a financial plan to secure funding to get a truck so I can take the pop-ups mobile,” Marbley said. “For that I’m looking at a launch date towards next year, around September 2017.”

Until then, Marbley plans to continue with her biweekly pop-ups. She has moved, though, due in part to competitive issues — a business near the Vennari’s started selling flowers as well. Now, she is just down the strip in front of the Laurel Cyclery, owned by Jason Wallach.

“Proud to collaborate with [Marbley] and so glad she is here to brighten everyone’s day…” Wallach posted on the Laurel Cyclery’s Facebook page in October 2016.

This new location puts Esscents of Flowers right next to the Laurel District’s parklet, which draws in many families and visitors and has contributed to a boost in the pop-up’s business.

Ariana Marbley

Ariana Marbley sets up her Esscents of Flowers pop-up outside of the Laurel Cyclery in Oakland. (Photo courtesy of the Laurel Cyclery)

Sequoia Diner similarly started out with pop-ups throughout the Bay Area before establishing their physical storefront in the Laurel in February 2015. For the owners, though, the reason behind their pop-ups was different than Marbley’s.

“We didn’t do a ton of them. It’s more a learning experience for how you’re gonna work with your partner. How are you going to get customers. How are you gonna advertise. How are you going to make your food,” said Andrew Vennari. “You don’t really do them to make money for a restaurant…The most valuable thing was the experience.”

Andrew Vennari is more optimistic about the prospects for Marbley’s pop-up given her target industry. “For a flower shop, it does make sense to do a pop-up,” he said. “Especially if your goal is to do bigger things like weddings.”

That is is exactly where Marbley is hoping her pop-ups will lead her.

“I’ve done a few events since I started the business. I’ve done a couple weddings, I’ve done a graduation, I’ve done a memorial event,” Marbley said. “People are starting to understand that I’m connected to flowers and do events as well. So the brand is definitely getting out there.”

Initially, Marbley said she wanted a storefront. But with the real estate boom, that wasn’t realistic.

“Unfortunately, now Oakland is the place to be. The rent is just way too much,” Marbley said. “I can’t afford it even if I wanted to have a physical location in Oakland.”

Diane McCan is a realtor who has specialized in the Laurel area since the 1980s.

“Starting around three or four years ago, we started to see a big change,” said McCan. “We have people that are coming in and seem to be looking at the Laurel as a viable commercial enterprise.” In a November 2016 phone interview, she went on to share that the people that are renting these properties are investing money in the buildings, and now look at the Laurel and surrounding areas in Oakland as being a great place to live.

The rising commercial popularity of Oakland may not be a good thing for self-funded new businesses like Esscents of Flowers, McCan said.

“It’s very difficult doing business in Oakland now. The rents are high, the business tax, all of that,” McCan said. “Unless you’re making huge amounts of money at your business, how can you afford to do business in Oakland?”

But the pop-up/mobile business model also could be a solution to rising rent prices in the Bay, say Marbley and others. It is a trend that has already been seen in the food and fashion industries.

TopShelf Boutique opened in 2012 and was the first mobile fashion truck in San Francisco, according to an SFGate report. In 2013, the boutique also opened a physical location in San Francisco’s Crocker Galleria, but the truck was still on the road at the time, doing corporate events for the likes of Facebook, AOL and eBay, as well as private parties.

“‘The truck’s been good, but it’s also nice to have people come to you,’” said owner Christina Ruiz in an interview with SFGate. Ruiz did not respond to a request for comment.

On the food industry side, Off the Grid is a Bay Area staple that operates over 50 weekly public events.

Off the Grid, the largest network of mobile food vendors, was founded [in June 2010] on the idea of bringing communities together through amazing shared food experiences,” according to publicity material sent to Peninsula Press.  

Off the Grid founder Matt Cohen said in a written statement that mobile businesses have a lot of benefits, especially for the Bay Area.

“I see mobile as increasingly viable in a couple different capacities. First, it’s an investment that reduces risk associated with sunk costs that come along with starting a restaurant business (the truck is an asset that can usually be sold for a significant percentage of the original purchase price),” Cohen said in a statement. “Second, mobile is a way of further leveraging an existing investment in a brick-and-mortar space to add ancillary revenue to restaurants without the expense of an additional location.”

Marbley has already begun to embrace the model.

“Think of it like “a food truck, but with flowers,” she said.

Ariana Marbley and Jason Wallach

Ariana Marbley and Jason Wallach outside of the Laurel Cyclery, where Esscents of Flowers is set up. (Photo courtesy of the Laurel Cyclery)

The local government in Oakland also is backing initiatives to support mobile businesses. Oakland has 10 business improvement districts located throughout the city with the chief purpose to encourage foot traffic and re-activate empty streets, according to the city. Among other efforts, the city is promoting the formation of pop-up businesses in vacated buildings, mainly by helping local vendors negotiate low permitting fees with the building owners.

Similar to Off the Grid, Marbley plans to capitalize on fairs and communal events that bring together mobile vendors and businesses like hers.

“I just got approved to do the Jack of All Trades event which happens on the second Saturday of [April],” Marbley said. “It’s an outside market where vendors come to sell their goods. It’s highly publicized. People travel from all over the Bay Area to see those events.”

Marbley also will be promoting her Esscents of Flowers business at the Treasure Island Flea Market in March, where she says there are “vendors from every single background selling any- and everything from purses to jewelry to artwork.”

Andrew Vennari believes this tactic is the same for businesses with brick and mortar storefronts.

“Restaurants thrive around each other. That’s the advantage of being in a commercial area,” Andrew Vennari said. “If you think of busy places in busy areas, there’s always other restaurants around. It’s cool if everyone has enough business to go around. If we’re full and people are waiting, by all means you can go eat somewhere else.”

As Marbley prepares for the Jack of All Trades and Treasure Island fairs, she plans to continue with her biweekly pop-ups outside the bike shop.

“I would still like to keep [pop-ups] as my base. But maybe do it once a month as opposed to twice a month,” Marbley said. “Then the other weekends I am in the truck hitting up other parts of Oakland.”

But she still plans to keep the business close to home.

“I always knew I wanted to stay in Oakland. That was one of the most powerful pieces of the creation of the business,” Marbley said. “Here I am born and raised in Oakland, and I wanted to make sure that the business I created stays in Oakland.”