Popping up recently along the alley leading from the shadow of Petaluma’s downtown clock tower to the Balshaw walking bridge, Jupiter Foods has added a small European-style grocery store to our historic downtown streets.
It packs a wide variety of organic fruits and vegetables, plus a plethora of specialty products, from fresh-baked bread, to locally produced coffee, to nuts, chocolates, olive oils and honey in an intimate and inviting open-air space.
Just in time for spring, Jupiter Foods has expanded from just a couple of tables under pop-up tents to an additional indoor space with coolers of cheese, soup bases, tofu, ghee and juices, plus enough room to offer tastings and other gathers once gathers are again allowed. This has quickly gained Jupiter Foods additional attention among conscientious shoppers who may not want to wait for one of our weekly farmers markets or who prefer to have an expert do the sourcing for them.
Daniel Bleakney-Formby, founder of Jupiter Foods, is not new to locally and consciously grown fruits and vegetables. He grew up in central Iowa, the youngest of three children of a farmer and factory worker.
“Food was always a big part of our lives,” he said. “We grew just about everything we ate, from veggies to animals, and naturally, everything was highly seasonal.”
Dan and his siblings learned all about healthy and diverse farming, not realizing that someday it that would be the exception, not the norm. Then a nationwide transition began from small farms to big agriculture that began to change how people connect to the foods they consume.
“It was a time when the industry forced farmers to either go big or get out,” he said.
Committed to the farming life, Dan’s dad decided to go big, or at least as big as he could. He got rid of the animals so as to convert the pastureland into mono crops, like soybeans and corn. He even demolished most of the buildings on the property in order to make more room for crops.
“He ended up growing in every corner of the property,” he remembered. “Crops were grown right up to the house.”
After college, Dan worked for two decades in the floral industry, advancing to the position of vice president of Cactus Flower, a company with a dozen shops. He picked up invaluable experience dealing with perishable goods while learning a lot about managing people and servicing customers. He also enjoyed working within the community. These skills would all come in handy when he made the move to Napa in 2011 after a regular Fourth of July visit with friends in the area.
“My friend had a large schooner they needed help selling so I moved aboard, fixed it up, and helped sell it,” he said. He fell in the love with the area, decided to stay, working odd jobs for a while, until he landed at Oxbow Market’s Hudson Greens and Goods in Napa as general manager.
After meeting through friends, in 2015 Dan got engaged to Howard Formby, a Petaluma native, and married in 2016.
“That’s when it really struck me that so much of what we were carrying at Hudson’s in Napa was coming from Petaluma and Sonoma County,” he said. “I was literally buying Petaluma produce in Napa, only to bring it home to cook for dinner.”
This is when the idea of Jupiter Foods was born.
For the next couple of years, Jupiter Foods was an evolving concept, which finally landed, if only temporarily, at a large space in Theatre Square. That was in the fall of 2017, and due to complications related to the fires and the economic aftereffects, that location did not materialize beyond a “coming soon” sign. It was when many Petalumans first heard of Jupiter Foods and signed up for the email list, which is how we were clued in to the soft opening in the fall of 2020.
In the span between Jupiter Foods “1.0” and the current iteration, Dan spent a lot of time engaging with organizations like the Sonoma County Food System Alliance.
“We envision a system in which local growers and processors are economically viable, the physical environment is maintained, and consumers have access to healthy, affordable food,” he said.
Dan has also worked heavily this past year on the Emergency Food Response Coalition within the FSA. Additionally, Dan serves as vice chair of the board of directors of Daily Acts, which works as an environmental education.
“Both organizations help my connection to the community emphasizing food sovereignty and eco-justice,” he said.
The name Jupiter dates to Dan’s youth in Newton, Iowa. “Jupiter was our local five and dime,” Dan reminisced. “I would go in with my allowance and could always find something to buy, from candy to models to other interesting things.”
Started as a discount arm of Sebastian Spering Kresge’s S.S. Kresge department stores (incorporated in 1899 and rebranded as the Kmart Corporation in 1977), at their height, Jupiter Discount Stores were spread across small-town America and were the forerunner to today’s dollar stores. Although sold off to competitor McCrory Corp. in 1987 and renamed, the store and the name Jupiter are still dear to Dan. “The store sparked my imagination, as did the name. As soon as I learned that Jupiter was a planet, I then started learning about astronomy, which I still love. That lead to my interest in sci-fi. It all ties into who I am, so I thought it was an appropriate name for the store,” he shared.
Along with husband Howard, a landscape architect, Dan’s friend, Councilmember D’Lynda Fischer, has been a big help with Jupiter Foods since day one.
“Her energy is the glue that keeps the community and environment issues as our top concerns,” Dan says. “I am amazed at her engagement with folks as she checks customers out at the cash register and shifts to her role as city council person without pause. She can be heard telling someone how terrific Revolution Bread is in one moment and the topics of citizens’ concerns in the next.”
In the summer of 2020, while speaking with Stephanie Rastetter, owner/chef of Water Street Bistro, she offered up some of her unused space for Dan to sell a “you pick” style of CSA vegetable box. Dan wanted people to be able to see the produce in person, instead of simply picking from a list. Most of all, he wanted to be able to engage with customers, so he took her up on her offer, adding a couple of tables and tents out front.
This personal engagement is key to what makes Jupiter Foods such an exceptional place to shop. My best advice to customers is to talk with Dan about what you are trying to make, or what you like to eat. He has an innate ability to connect with guests and even though far more experienced in the kitchen than we are, never comes across as condescending or judgmental, which says a lot considering my penchant for gas station food, sugary treats and all-you-can-eat buffets.
Shortly after starting his pop-up farmers market alongside Water Street Bistro, the space formerly occupied by Incavo wine bar became available.
“It is right in the heart of downtown,” said Dan, with a smile of pure satisfaction on his face. “This is a special town with special people and this location allows us to meet and engage with so many of them. It also gives both an indoor space and enough outdoor table space in order to properly display our fresh produce.”
As an apple regular at Jupiter Foods, I can attest to the breadth and depth of flavor options always available in the apple department. In fact, I had not really eaten apples for the past couple of decades because I often found the standard grocery store options to be bland, boring and mealy. It was not until we visited Howard’s family property and sampled several heritage varieties right off the trees that I remember just how good apples could be. Now, whenever we are in the vicinity of Jupiter Foods, I always stop in for an apple.
The conversation usually starts with me standing in front of whatever apples are currently on display. “Okay Dan, what flavors am I looking at?” I ask.
The last time, he replied, “This one will have hints of chardonnay, this one vanilla and this one will have a bit of lemon tartness to it.” I tried all three across three consecutive visits and sure enough, there were hints of chardonnay, vanilla and lemon. And all were properly firm and crisp.
As with many others, our shopping experience at Jupiter Foods has developed organically. At first, we would stop in searching for ingredients for a particular recipe. However, once we started to engage with Dan, we modified our meals for the week based on what he had on hand. Now, if I see leeks, I immediately start looking for the other ingredients I will need for my favorite Basque stew, with Dan helping come up with substitutes to things that might not be available.
“Often times people are looking for one thing, which may not be in season,” said Dan. “But if they ask, I we can find a substitute that will do equally well and that will likely open their recipe into a broader culinary experience.”
To blame Dan for inspiring me to eat more fruits and vegetables would be an understatement.
Dan also has an incredible knowledge of cooking. He is demure when asked about being a chef because he is not professionally trained, however we have never been able to stump him on a recipe and he always has suggestions of how we might improve even our most exotic creation.
“I learned to cook from my maternal great grandmother and paternal grandmother,” Dan reveals. “They were putting full meals on the table three times a day, so it was about more than just making a dish here or there. They were dealing with the timing of preparing several dishes at once and adjusting recipes to seasonal ingredients.”
Dan’s cooking prowess also benefited from his years at Oxbow Market’s Hudson Greens and Goods. “We had half a dozen former Chez Panisse chefs coming through the shop regularly, along with a lot of other private chefs and caterers,” said Dan. “They were all cooking different things for their clients, so I took advantage of every opportunity to learn from them. It was all about shared knowledge. They had a recipe in mind but not all the ingredients would be in season so I would suggest substitutes. When they returned a couple of days later, they would share how things turned out and we would both learn from the experience.”
Social media buoyed Jupiter Food’s successful launch and continues to play a vital role.
“I recently posted a photo of a crab salad we made at home,” said Dan. “We were immediately flooded with customers looking for the ingredients so they could replicate it. However, with availability changing daily, we worked with them to come up with alternatives. It’s a fun progression and is rewarding to connect to the community in this way.” I highly recommend joining Jupiter’s email list. We watch it religious, especially now that we have developed some favorite varieties of fruits and veggies. In the late fall, Dan had advised us that a favorite apple variety was waning, so we were the first to show up at the shop whenever we saw it pop up on the email list.
Jupiter Foods has quickly become a great location for people to check in on what is happening and run into friends of old.
“We already have plans for an educational series,” said Dan. “Whatever people are interested in, from how to make salad dressings to tastings to recycling education, we want to create a gathering space, all focused around healthy food.”
With cobble stone streets under foot and brick lined buildings flanking the open-air tables of fresh produce, Jupiter is a truly European shopping experience. However, it is Dan’s passion, knowledge and engagement with his customers and the community at large that really make Jupiter Foods a special and welcome addition to Petaluma’s culinary and cultural scene.