One of the most popular snacks sold at West Oakland’s new Magnolia Mini Mart combines a nostalgic breakfast cereal, pretzel sticks, and a well-known curvy chip. The Furikake Party Mix comes coated in sweet syrup and sprinkled with furikake, the umami-filled Japanese seasoning mix of dried fish, sesame seeds, and seaweed. Taken all together, it’s a salty-sweet, perfectly balanced, and quintessentially Hawaiian combination — a nostalgic callback to chef Desiree Valencia’s own island upbringing.
The snack mix provided a launching-off point for Ono Snax, the Hawaiian dessert and snack food pop-up that Valencia started this summer. But the chef has even more ambitious plans in the works. In a few weeks, she’ll open a new storefront in Berkeley called Ono Bakehouse — a standalone shop that’ll serve Valencia’s take on classic Hawaiian treats like butter mochi, chocolate haupia pie, and Queen Emma layer cake. It will be the East Bay’s first dedicated Hawaiian bakery.
For Valencia — a seasoned chef and pastry chef who worked previously at high-end Bay Area restaurants like Morimoto Napa, Saison, and Niku Steakhouse — the new business was born out of necessity. Like many of her restaurant industry peers, Valencia found herself out of a job when the pandemic hit.
“It was weird to have something decided for me that I didn’t choose,” says Valencia. “But with that comes freedom. I knew I wanted to be self-sufficient and create something I ultimately believed in.”
The Oakland-based chef’s thoughts turned to the comfort of her home cuisine. A fourth-generation child of Hawaii, Valencia was born and raised on Maui. “Hawaii is a multicultural place. Its food is very mixed: a lot of Asian influence and local ingredients, both coastal and tropical. It’s so many things, and it’s really something special.”
Valencia’s neighbor, Alexandra Tejada, had opened Magnolia Mini Mart not long after the shelter-in-place ordinance took effect, with the goal of providing a place for local chefs to showcase their wares. She was the one who first nudged Valencia to bring her Hawaiian specialties to the market. In addition to her Furikake party mix, Valencia also started making chocolate haupia pie and homemade ice creams with a Hawaiian twist, such as P.O.G. (Passionfruit, Orange and Guava) and chocolate malt flecked with pieces of crunchy, chocolate-covered mochi.
Her packaged items come adorned with Ono Snax’s logo: a giant shaka, a common hand gesture in Hawaii that means all things positive, from “aloha” to “hang loose.”
After seeing the demand for her treats at the mini mart, Valencia began supplying San Francisco’s Dolores Outpost with her Hawaiian ice cream, and participated in the Oakland Luau — an outdoor event that also featured fellow Hawaiian-inspired vendors Unco Frank’s and Aloha Shave Ice Co. That’s where Valencia debuted what will almost certainly be one of Ono Bakehouse’s signature desserts — her Queen Emma cake. Each slice reveals alternating coconut, guava, and lilikoi (yellow passionfruit) mousses, making for a beautiful array of white, pink and yellow layers. Finished with coconut frosting and lightly-toasted coconut flakes, the cake is a sight to behold. “I grew up eating Queen Emma cake on special occasions, and no one really makes them anymore,” Valencia wrote when she posted a photo of the cake on Instagram. “I miss it!”
The quick success of the business fueled Valencia’s decision to take a leap of faith in opening her own storefront. “Pop-ups are a little hard on customers who can’t always make it on random, irregular days to buy your products,” Valencia says. “[The bakery] will also allow for more consistency, and is the first step for me to build an atmosphere I can be proud of.”
Rather than being purely traditional, Ono Bakehouse’s pastries and snacks will combine the flavors of Valencia’s Hawaiian upbringing with California’s seasonal produce — a Bosc or Bartlett pear Danish with yuzu pastry cream for the fall, for instance. They’re reflective of the chef’s own journey of leaving home for a culinary career in California. The menu will include Ono Snax mainstays like butter mochi, lilikoi poppyseed pound cake, and the Furikake party mix. Beyond that, the chef also plans to offer a few savory items, including a loco moco-inspired roll with caramelized onions, ground beef, egg, and gravy. Eventually, she might also sell her Hawaiian-inspired ice cream flavors at the shop.
Ono Bakehouse will be located at the former home of Secret Scoop, at 1922 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley. Valencia hopes to open in mid-November.