Eclectic Miracle Plum in Santa Rosa intended as neighborhood hub

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Miracle Plum would fit right in the hip neighborhoods of Echo Park of Los Angeles or the Ballard area of Seattle, rather than the typical staid Santa Rosa storefront.

The local merchant definitely stands out — a bright, white revitalized relic between two nondescript bank buildings along a corridor of Railroad Square that hasn’t seen a lot of foot traffic. A sign out front notes the business is “very open,” an invitation to walk through its mustard yellow door.

Inside, proprietors and Santa Rosa natives Sallie Miller and Gwen Gunheim have curated a market of locally sourced food and wine, grab-and-go lunches, a smattering of fresh produce plus unique items (a coconut bristle scrubber) housed in a 106-year-old structure that also hosts workshops on how to make fresh pasta and arts shows. It is located at 208 Davis St.

The two self-confessed “dream entrepreneurs” talked last week of the challenges they have faced since opening that front door to the public last August, from city and county permitting hassles to finding available parking spaces for customers.

Yet, they repeatedly came back toward the intention for their retailing venture: a hub where people can come together for the Traverso’s Gourmet Foods from their parents’ generation. It’s a heady objective in an era of the ascending digital marketplace where most anything can be bought via Amazon at 2 a.m. with a single click, challenging bricks-and-mortar stores. One victim of that traditional retail demise was less than a mile away at the Santa Rosa Plaza, where department store Sears closed at the end of 2018.

Nationally, a report last month by investment firm UBS found that 75,000 stores that sell clothing, furnishings and electronics are expected to close by 2026 as overall online sales continue increasing.

Miller and Gunheim insist Miracle Plum is selling much more than products. It’s about an experience.

“People crave community,” said Miller, who also makes jams and jellies for sale at the store.

Community is at the heart of what Miller, 46, and Gunheim, 34, want with Miracle Plum, especially since they both live in the downtown area. They are part of a small, but growing group of younger entrepreneurs within the downtown corridor putting that neighborhood focus at the center of their business plan.

There enterprise strives to grow with a downtown backdrop of Santa Rosa leaders and developers attempting to revitalize downtown to lure more affordable housing in the aftermath of the reunification of the Old Courthouse Square and the opening of the Railroad Square SMART train station.

“It’s great to see a lot of these younger business leaders take the lead,” said Ozzy Jimenez, co-owner of Noble Folk Ice Cream and Pie, which opened its second location on Fourth Street after finding success on Healdsburg Square. Jimenez saw a need for a family-friendly ice cream and dessert parlor amid all the bars and restaurants around Old Courthouse Square.

“We want to see really cool things in our community. We didn’t see anyone else doing it, so we are going to do it,” Jimenez said of the dessert cafe. “It (the area) really needs to be diversified in a lot of different ways.”

Also part of that ongoing downtown diversification are Alisse Cottle and Jessica Borrayo of Brew Coffee and Beer House, which has become a hangout for the local LGBTQ community, and Liza Hinman, chef and owner of The Spinster Sisters and investor in the nearby Astro Motel, which also rents bicycles for guests to be able to the get around the city sans automobile.

“What we are talking about is vibrancy,” said Santa Rosa City Councilmember Chris Rogers, who lives downtown and has campaigned on making the overall city more livable for residents.

In a sentiment shared by many, Gunheim said that Santa Rosa shouldn’t model itself after small towns Sonoma and Healdsburg that are largely reliant on tourists. Instead, the city of around 175,000 residents should emulate Portland or Oakland in “a culture of doing things outside of your car.”

Miracle Plum is a reflection of that philosophy, as the owners recommend to customers other nearby merchants within walking distance. “You can’t be a monoculture the way we have seen it (in Santa Rosa),” Miller said.

Their visitors are varied, from public transit commuters to Instagram followers, to so-called “foodies” looking for a specialty Ethiopian coffee, And there are the curious who have driven by the building and wondered what was housed inside the yellow door. In fact, the latter represents a good deal of customers. Last week one remarked: “I had no idea what you are,” as he browsed on his first visit. He ended up buying a cookbook.

“We have people in the neighborhood who just come in and get a Topo Chico and go back to work,” Miller said of the sparkling mineral water produced in Monterrey, Mexico.

They started their business with a $100,000 investment but no bank loans. They raised $20,000 of it from an online Kickstarter campaign to develop an outside patio area. Their timing, however, couldn’t have been worse because their initial business planning was right before the October 2017 wildfires that overwhelmed city planning staff. Their idea for a cafe had to be temporarily shelved, though they got a license to sell alcohol on a to-go basis.

“The blessing from (the delay) was it caused us to pivot, and we just opened smaller,” said Gunheim, who has a catering and woodworking background. They still plan on a kitchen area that will allow the store to offer a greater mix of events and products.

“The idea of starting a business somewhere else didn’t feel right but might have been easier,” Gunheim said of downtown Santa Rosa.

The two have been judicious with their product selection, looking for items that aren’t widely available elsewhere. Take for example, wine, which is ubiquitous around Sonoma County with the many wineries and the bottle shops that carry an array of bottles. Miracle Plum stocks so-called “natural wine,” made in a process that discourages the use of additives and preservatives during fermentation and bottling. The wine style has not been included much on retail shelves locally, but it has gotten a good reception with millennials in large cities.

Indeed, the store has found that natural wine is a product worth selling here. The owners also have found a strong sense of collaboration with local winemakers in that style and they hope to expand the wine line. Last month, Miller and Gunheim took over the wine-by-the-glass program for one night at Spinster Sisters, highlighting some of their favorite female winemakers who focus on natural wine production.

“One of the main words we focused on from the very first meeting is collaboration,” Miller said of the team effort with the winemakers.

One of the merchant’s more popular events has been its cookbook club. Customers make a recipe from a particular cookbook to bring in and share — with one meeting attracting more than 30 people. The next session is on June 23 and features items from “Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen” by Yasmin Kahn. The store features spices from Burlap & Barrel that are included in some of the recipes in that book. Going forward, winemaker dinners will be on the menu when the full kitchen is ready, Gunheim said.

“I think people want to experience things. I think people want to feel connected,” she said.

Locally sourced items are plentiful, with bread from Red Bird Bakery in Cotati. Cheese comes from Cowgirl Creamery in Petaluma and there’s chocolate from Volo Chocolate in Windsor.

One surprise hit has been the wide variety of flavored popcorn from Comet Corn in Santa Rosa.

“We had no idea that Comet Corn popcorn is as popular as it is,” Gunheim said.

The two are bullish on their business prospects, extending their closing time weekdays by two hours until 7 p.m. to catch more people after work. That also required hiring two part-time employees.

The store is like “that third place” between home and work, where people just want to visit whether they are buying a locally produced turnip or just browsing card selections, Miller said.

“The reception we have gotten has been extremely warm and encouraging,” she said. “A woman came in and said I just need to be in a better mood.”

Miller’s response: “Sweet. Let’s talk about turnips.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.

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