You know how the Farmers Market is wonderful and glorious but sometimes you forget to go? And how sometimes you crave a healthy, organic lunch or dinner that’s fresh and delicious, yet will require exactly zero in the way of effort on your part? And how other times you wish you could find a rare, gourmet treat to surprise your foodie friend with for her birthday, but you have no idea where to look? Or how you’ve been meaning to search out some tasty juices for the cleanse you’ve been meaning to do?
Wouldn’t it be magical if someone would pull all that stuff together and put it in one convenient little space? And, like, offer you samples of decadent, unbelievably vegan fudge while you’re browsing?
Well, someone did (and, regarding the fudge, does). Amy Isabella Chalker is her name, and Isabella Gourmet Foods is this fantasy come to life. Chalker, a member of S.B.’s sizeable Cape Cod contingent who went to college in Boston and New York, came to Santa Barbara to complete a 10-month-long dietetic internship — eight years ago. In that time, she’s worked as a dietician and a masseuse, and, though clearly seduced by S.B.’s many charms, she realized she missed Cape Cod’s little markets, and the square-footage-challenged bodegas that efficiently manage to keep big-city-dwellers’ bellies full and cupboards stocked.
Despite its somewhat limited space, her shop, located just outside La Arcada Court on Figueroa Street, somehow stocks an answer to your every gastronomic quandary. And her dietician sensibility is in evidence: There are ready-to-go sandwiches, salads, and veggies from the Goodland, fresh bread from the Genuine Bread Company, Sugar Cat Studio’s Cupcake Wars-winning cupcakes, Farmers Market-fresh produce (right now, look for asparagus, strawberries, and cherries), Casitas Valley cheese, and Baba’s hummus, as well as an array of gourmet jams, infused vinegars, olive oils, sea salts, crackers, cookies, granola, popcorn, pickles, and even S.B. Olive Oil Company’s Dirty Martini Mix. And for the fungi-philes, truffle oil, salt, and infused honey. Um, hi.
Even those with dietary restrictions will find treats. “I’m not vegan or vegetarian,” said Chalker, “but I’m actually most excited about a lot of the vegan products.” Who wouldn’t be excited about vegan shortbread cookies? (If you’re thinking to yourself, “Me,” let me be the first to insist you try a Maple-Dusted Cardamom Sandcastle cookie from Black + Blanco. Made with coconut oil and whole rye, they’re as buttery and crumbly as the real deal. Chalker gave me one to taste; I bought two packages to bring back to the office. The verdict was unanimous: Yum.)
Sourcing proved surprisingly easy, Chalker said. She scoured Farmers Markets, and word of mouth, via friends and clients, worked its usual magic: Many vendors sought her out. She estimates that around 80 percent of her inventory comes from the 805, while the rest comes from boutique, gourmet purveyors from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and the East Coast. But, as impressive as the goods may be, for Chalker, approachability is key.
“I tried to be really thoughtful about it not being too pretty to eat,” she said (though I hasten to add, there is plenty of pretty on Isabella’s shelves). “I wanted it to be things that you’re like, I can’t wait to get out of the store to tear this open.”
Waiting is no small part of this story. “It took a good six months to get open,” Chalker said from behind the counter on the warm Wednesday afternoon that marked Isabella’s one-week anniversary. “Honestly, if I had known how long it would take, I don’t know if I would have done it.” Score one for not knowing.
Impatience won out: Isabella is open, although Chalker’s still waiting on more inventory, as well as her license to sell wines (just a couple of weeks out), which, like everything, will be primarily small-batch and top-shelf. And in the future, she hopes to hold vendor tastings, pop-up dinners, classes, workshops, and meet-and-greets with her farmers and producers. But the future begins soon: She’s planning a grand opening party as part of June’s First Thursday get-down.
“I want it be a community space,” she said, “and utilize it the best I can, especially because I’m in the heart of downtown.”
Let’s hope those of us living and working in the heart of downtown return the favor.
Isabella Gourmet Foods: 5 East Figueroa Street. Call 585-5257; visit Isabellagourmetfoods.com.