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#ensemblexchange. interview with douglas' maggie spicer.

Douglas – with the tagline “Corner of Delicious” – is one of Ensembl’s most beloved San Francisco spots and the ultimate corner store. We were fortunate to sit down with one of Douglas’ founders, Maggie Spicer. We chatted with her about the inspiration for Douglas, how she thinks about sourcing and seasonality when bringing in products to her store, what she considers the perfect pantry essentials, and the future of food and cooking.

Situated in the heart of Noe Valley, Douglas is part coffee shop, part wine bar and wine store, part grocery, part café. Its unassuming size gives way to a bountiful selection of carefully curated products, including an enviable wine selection. The small but open space creates a uniquely warm feeling and sense of community from the moment you step in.

In addition to founding Douglas, Maggie is the founder of WHISK, a SF-based Hospitality Design agency; an editor of Drift and Ambrosia magazines; a contributor to a food magazine called EdibleSF; a board member of 18 Reasons, Bi-Rite’s non-profit and community-focused food school; and serves on the advisory committee for the non-profit arm for CUESA, the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers’ Market. Michael Molesky, Maggie’s partner at Douglas and in life, is also the founder of Marker, a travel recommendation app.


our conversation with maggie spicer. 

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maggie spicer, co-founder of douglas in san francisco.

kate (ensembl): Thanks so much for making time to speak with us! Douglas is one of my favourite shops in San Francisco. From the moment I stepped inside for my first visit, I knew Douglas was special. Can you tell me a little about your inspiration for creating this space? 

maggie: Both Michael and I are really interested in food. We love good food and strive to orient our eating so that we are taking advantage of seasonal and locally-grown ingredients. We buy a lot of our produce at the farmers’ market, especially the Ferry Building farmers’ market – it’s the best place to find an array of diverse, super fresh, and seasonal ingredients. We are both driven by great hospitality, too.

We were at a point in our respective careers where we were ready for a new challenge and wanted to create something that blended our mutual interests in food and hospitality. We aimed to build something that would create community, support local producers, and showcase great wines; a place where you could find something delicious at any time of the day – great coffee, a delicious sandwich, a spot to have a meeting, or have a glass of wine. With Douglas, we try to offer everything that the modern dweller in San Francisco would need: whether ingredients for making dinner for one, hosting a dinner party, or picking up picnic provisions. We want Douglas to be a place you can go for any delicious occasion.

kate (ensembl): You always have such a great, curated selection of products at Douglas. What are you thinking about when you source ingredients, and how have you approached the curation process?

maggie: Our number one criteria is that it has to be delicious.

We look for products made with high-quality ingredients, produce and highly-perishable items such as dairy, tinned seafood, breads, cheese, etc. that are grown and/or sourced in a nutritionally-dense manner. We place emphasis on bio-availability - a tomato that’s been shipped in a gas to turn it red by the time it arrives our store is not going to taste pleasurable or have a satisfying texture! Not to be dogmatic about seasonality or locality but those things really matter. For example, we carry Early Girl tomatoes from Dirty Girl Farm. I’ve had numerous customers say they have never tasted tomatoes like that. And it’s not surprising – they’ve grown up eating artificially-ripened produce! If we get requests from customers to carry certain products but we know we can’t find a quality version at that time, we would often prefer not to offer it and instead suggest alternatives. Quality and the corresponding nutritional value are very important to us. 

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seasonal produce selection at douglas.

We also place a lot of emphasis on integrity in our sourcing process. We try to source direct from the producer.  A lot of businesses don’t do this because it’s administratively burdensome with so many suppliers, but we think it’s worthwhile because we can control what we get and truly bring in the best. It’s fresher that way and more of the money we pay goes directly back to the producer — that’s significant for items being sourced from among the SF Bay Area.

We also aim to carry one version of the product in order to eliminate decision fatigue. As a customer, it can be frustrating at the end of a long day to have to decide between six different kinds of tomato paste or butter. We believe we can select one great product, and in doing so, simplify the shopping process for our customers by eliminating the need for tedious decision making when pressed for time.

kate (ensembl): This level of thoughtfulness definitely comes through when you enter the store. But, we think Douglas is so much more than just a store! You’ve done a great job of making it naturally feel like a place to meet and a space to linger. How do you think about creating occasions for people to spend time at Douglas and what’s your motivation to create a community feeling?

maggie: We wanted to create this organic gathering space but also make it a space to learn. When it comes to learning, we envision this being everything from a formal class to having an expert on hand at the store that you can speak with while shopping. Things like pantry classes, fermentation workshops, and cheese workshops might take shape in the form of a formal class, but making sure that there is always someone available to educate customers while they are shopping is also key.

For example, if you come in to buy cheese, we can help with selection, but more than that, we can help explain the differences between types of cheese, how to pair cheeses, when to serve certain types, and in doing so empower the customer to understand the decision making process so they can do it themselves the next time.

But the educational element can extend even past that. For example, if you are stocking your pantry for the first time, we want you to come into Douglas and recognize that while our store has limited space, we carry a wide and balanced range of products that help set up any new kitchen (or home cook) for success. My hope is that this customer would come to trust our curation and selection and think: “I bet they can help me learn how to stock my small pantry, too.” We want to teach people more about the basic products they could consider having stocked in their pantry, so that they always feel empowered to cook a nutritious, simple-yet-exciting meal at home, whether it’s a meal planned in advance or last-minute after a long day at work.

kate (ensembl): I hear you on the struggles with pantry stocking! Everyone—not just people moving into a new space—can use help figuring out how to stock their pantry. Douglas’ product selection definitely qualifies you as an expert here. What are the pantry essentials I should have on hand? And what are elevated extras that are worth splurging on - both in terms of money and shelf-space?

maggie: Great question! Like I mentioned, we do hope that our customers notice that we’ve carefully selected a range of products to fit in our small shop, and would love it if that inspired their own pantry decisions.

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curated pantry essentials and specialty items at douglas.

My essentials list includes:

  • salt: Table salt (a good kosher salt), a finishing salt (Maldon salt, a fine grey sea salt, a smoked salt, a black lava salt, a Himalayan salt – a salt that will bring out the umami of a dish). For example, most chefs sprinkle salt atop a salad to finish it, not just in the dressing. It’s not something we normally think of as home cooks. So, you can make the dressing with the kosher salt, then finish with Maldon or French sel gris).
  • oil: Two types of oil - an extra virgin olive oil (again, for finishing) and something that can tolerate higher temperatures when you’re cooking, such as grapeseed oil.
  • vinegar: red wine, apple cider, and champagne vinegars are great, but it is important to find what you like.
  • a staple grain: farrow, rice, quinoa, a pasta you enjoy – you should have at least one on hand.
  • shallots, lemons, garlic, black pepper, and flat-leaf parsley: Lemons can also be used on salad if you don’t have vinegar, shallots can be used in a sauté, garlic is called for in so many recipes, and parsley can be chopped and added to a sauce or included in a salad as larger, picked leaves. I love a salad with an array of picked, fresh herbs. One of our staple dressings both at home and in the shop combines several of these ingredients - red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), shallots, salt and pepper.
  • fresh, in-season fruit: because it’s good on its to have on hand and can be part of a meal or a snack.
  • capers: they are inexpensive and easy to store for along time, and can add a nice salinity to dishes, dressings, and sauces.

More elevated options that are worth the money and self-space:

  • fresh almond milk: try to find almond milk that doesn't contain gums or stabilizers or get the ingredients to make your own (almonds, water, salt, and some dates or cardamom for flavour).
  • pickles and low- or no-sugar-added preserves: my favourite is a yuzu-kosho Japanese citrus relish – something that adds umami and bright notes when you’re cooking. INNA Jam makes some delicious, kid-friendly preserves and jams. For something more extravagant, we opt for June Taylor.
  • spices that make you excited: Urfa Biber, Ras el Hanout, Togarashi or Furikake seasoning, fennel pollen, fresh marjoram — essentially something that elevates your everyday food.
  • coconut-based yogurt: take time to find one that you like – tastes and textures vary depending on the producer.
  • interesting cheeses and charcuterie staples: stocking things like salumi and cheeses that are easy to bring out for entertaining, plus some good quality crackers. We love Harbison from Jasper Hill Cellars in Vermont, La Tur (Italian), Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery just a short drive north of SF, and Epoisse (French) if you’re feeling adventurous!

kate (ensembl): With greater connectivity to a range of food and greater availability of information about food, why is it important to bring it back to a small shop context?

maggie: It is a completely different experience to shop at a small store compared to a giant chain grocery.

People are craving community and want to shop from a store that remembers them. Customers appreciate that recognition. The retail experience comes down to hospitality – Douglas is all about hospitality. If we can think through the guest experience to make our customers feel seen, heard, and valued, it leads to a viscerally different experience than one from feeling anonymous, shopping at a big-box store.

We feel a responsibility to serve as a resource for the community – to educate them about the food we bring in and explain seasonality and provenance. People should know why we don’t have strawberries in December - it’s because they don’t grow at that time of year within our local food shed, and because they are not going to taste good! They’ll also be less nutritionally dense. We focus on bringing our community seasonal foods that are at their peak freshness. In big-box stores, you’re always going to get the ingredient you were looking for, but you may not know when the ingredient is at its best, it may taste bland, if it has flavor at all, and it is nearly guaranteed to be less nutritionally dense based on how, where, and when it was grown. At Douglas, we can guarantee that you’re getting peak-of-season produce, and when that ingredient is out of season, we can help customers find substitutions and teach them what can be used interchangeably. There is a dialogue that can happen with our customers that just is not possible at a big-box store.

For example, a customer came in to pick up ingredients for an Ottolenghi recipe. However, we were out of parsley, so we suggested chervil instead. That opportunity to talk with customers, introduce them to new foods, and explain the flavour profiles of an ingredient really makes shopping at Douglas a learning experience.

kate (ensembl): The range of food we see available today is different than it was 10 years ago (and looks very different than what was around 30 years ago!). Can you tell us how you’ve seen food evolve and change, the role that globalization is having on food, and what we should be on the lookout for going forward?

maggie: Right now, we are seeing the lines blur between cuisines, cultures, and ingredients.

We have more knowledge of and much greater access to ingredients than ever before, such as Dino (Lacinato) kale. This didn’t exist when I grew up! Do we see it now because it’s trendy? Was it on an Italian food show? Did it is start as a health craze? Did it start on the west coast? The (somewhat recent) availability of a product like this is really interesting to me — the where, why, and how ingredients come into fashion.

When I was growing up it was hard to source many of the ingredients I saw in cookbooks. Saffron or cardamom were exotic ingredients and hard to find. But the “globalization of foods”, if you will, has made many of these ingredients more readily available.

Globalization brings us new ingredients and dishes to experiment from and to get to know. We’re then able to learn more about the cultures behind the foods we eat. For example, I get fresh corn tortillas from La Palma, a mexicatessen in San Francisco’s Mission District who sources only non-GMO corn to make its masa. Additionally, the use of corn varietals, like blue corn, that were not previously common in the United States is exciting. I can immediately taste the difference eating a corn tortilla from La Palma versus one that’s mass-produced, sitting in a labeled package in a store. That stark difference in flavor helps me appreciate the time, effort, and tradition that goes into to making the tortilla.

Or look at matcha. I’ve had it in Japan, but never grasped the seasonality or understood the taste spectrum until having had it at a tea shop in New York, ironically. Sometimes you learn more about a food by experiencing it in a foreign land than you do in its native land, and so we have a greater opportunity to learn and understand that food as globalization spreads ingredients around the world.

I think we’ve seen some blending of cultures with fusion food, but I view this as more of a simplification of food, and don’t see it as a lasting trend. Instead, I am seeing an increase in people that deeply care about the lineage and tradition of food that are taking things back to their original, true forms. But, because of globalization, I’ve also seen it happening in an unexpected way sometimes. For example, I’ve seen gluten-free pastas coming out of Japan, where traditional Japanese ingredients are being used to create a traditional, Italian-style pasta. To me, this is a better representation of what “fusion” could mean.

In terms of what’s next, I think we’re going to see more bugs in our food as alternative sources of protein. And think we’ll be seeing the use of more adaptogens and CBD in food and beverages.

kate (ensembl): It’s not just the ingredients we have or the foods we want to make, but at a more basic level, the way we cook is evolving. How do you see the experience of cooking and dining at home changing?

maggie: I see this happening in a number of ways, but I’ll get into two.

On the health side of food, with chronic, increasing levels of autoimmune disorders, diabetes, etc., we are more aware of how our bodies metabolize and make use (or don’t) of what we eat, and there is rising interest around how the food we eat makes us feel. There is also interest in better understanding the processes used in making or preparing certain foods, and how that impacts digestion, such as washing rice, soaking nuts, seeds, and grains. Our desire to understand the way that certain foods or food processing methods can make us feel, and how they impact the vitality of our bodies, is encouraging more people to get into the kitchen and take control by preparing their own food.

But more broadly, one of the reasons we cook at home is to have a different experience than what you can get dining out. Cooking helps us feel connected to the food we eat. And the act of cooking is in itself an experience; an experience that can change depending on what we make or who we are making it for. We cook, in part, because we crave that experience.

The act of cooking is one of the most primal ways we feel connected and build community. In our high-tech, increasingly digital world, I think more people are taking a step back and looking for ways to connect, and finding that cooking – whether cooking for people or cooking with people — is one of the best ways to feel that connection. We are building communities through food.

 


how do you come together? (dinner party repertoire with maggie spicer.)

 

prelude: what gets done in advance?

We start with the guests: who we’re inviting, how they are going to cross pollinate, and what that guest experience will be like. Then we think about dietary requirements, then we plan the menu. We consider what can be prepared in advance - salad dressing, washing the lettuce for a salad or slicing the vegetables and then storing in cool water in the fridge until it’s time to prepare them, preparing dessert such as a seasonal fruit galette or ice cream, or chocolate chip cookie dough – which only gets better with age! I think it’s important to design a menu that allows for prep in advance.

A lot of cleaning gets done right before guests arrive. The kitchen gets messy while we cook, but we always try to tidy as we go. My grandmother taught me never to arrive early at a dinner party (minimum 15 minute buffer) and so we’re always banking on our guests being fashionably late so we can finish that final kitchen cleaning.

We’ll also prepare and gather anything we need to create the right ambiance – putting together a playlist that feels right for the energy of the party, candles, stocking the washrooms with different soaps or hand towels, adding branches or flowers to a vase. The details!

outset: how does the night start?

I always make sure there is something for people to snack on when they arrive and an interesting bottle of wine that’s chilled.

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the hand-picked selection of wines at douglas, which feature several natural wines.

piece de resistance: What are you serving, how are you serving it? 

We both like to make new things and are comfortable with understanding flavours, so we like to wing it based on what we have or what’s fresh and exciting at the farmers market.

We almost always make a salad – you can never have too many veggies! One of our favourites has been this Greek salad from How to Roast a Lamb by Michael Psilakis – the dressing alone takes 1.5 hours to make! But it’s so worth it. We also have this recipe for sole meunière, but we use local sand dabs, and cook them in champagne vinegar with currants and shallots. It’s always a crowd pleaser. But for the most part, we just love to go to the market, see what’s interesting and available, and let that inspire us.

We really hate to waste food, so we prefer to serve food family style if possible, so people can take and eat what they want.

night cap: what marks the end of a good night?

The end of a great night is when people linger. A combination of thoughtful conversation and nice music playing.  No one is rushing to leave, but no one overstayed. Everyone is happy and everyone is appreciative. 


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