Jennifer Santillana and sister Tabitha Stroup (left) in front of SHEF in Watsonville
Jennifer Santillana (right) is operating SHEF, a vintage cookware and houseware store that’s the first storefront to open in the Watsonville building leased by her sister, entrepreneur Tabitha Stroup (left).
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Food & Drink

Her ‘leap of faith’ in downtown Watsonville looks to become a hub of sustainable ‘food love’

The entrepreneur behind Friend in Cheeses Jam Co. and Terroir in a Jar went looking for more space and ended up leasing a whole building she’s turning into a multi-purpose space. SHEF, a vintage cookware and houseware store, is the first business to open its doors at the Main Street location.

On a fall morning, Tabitha Stroup is making strawberry margarita mix in her new kitchen in downtown Watsonville. It’s a typical morning for Stroup, who has spent more than 30 years perfecting the art of preserves, some of which bear national acclaim through her first culinary company, Friend in Cheeses Jam Co.

Today, through her sustainable co-packing company Terroir in a Jar, Stroup is applying her culinary skills to help offset food waste and support local farmers by transforming disfigured or otherwise unsellable produce into delicious, value-added products like culinary vinegar, jams and salsas.

The strawberries for this mix were grown at Common Roots Farm in Santa Cruz but didn’t make it into a buyer’s hands while fresh. Instead, they were frozen at the peak of ripeness and brought to Stroup. Now transformed, the bright-red mixture is poured into tall, unmarked bottles and returned to the farmer to label and sell.

Shelf-stable products like this last far longer than the delicate fruits and vegetables, and can potentially be transported beyond the narrow area where the fresh products could have been sold. It’s a win for the farmer, and the environment, here in the U.S., where the demand for “perfect” fruits and vegetables results in as much as 50% of produce grown here being discarded. As Stroup explains in a documentary on her website, “Something that would be in your red column is now in your black.”

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Stroup reports that Terroir in a Jar is about to become an even greener business. “We’re in the middle of getting certified organic. When we do, it will be the first time in the history of the certifying body that we are certifying over 150 recipes,” says Stroup. “I will have so many things to offer that no other co-packer in Northern California could.”

It’s a win all around, and unsurprisingly, business is booming. Earlier this year, Stroup was confronted with the fact that she had outgrown her kitchen in Soquel and started scouting for a new kitchen in Watsonville, where she has lived for three years. On a bike ride through downtown, she peeked through the window of the vacant Miramar restaurant on Main Street, and knew she had found the perfect space.

Tabitha Stroup in her kitchen in downtown Watsonville
Tabitha Stroup’s search for more kitchen space for her business Terroir in a Jar led her to the vacant Miramar restaurant on Main Street in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Stroup and the landlord, whose family had owned the building since 1941, hit it off immediately. There was only one catch: She had to sign the lease for the entire 4,200-square-foot space.

“I took a leap of faith, and took it all,” says Stroup. It was a bold move not necessarily out of character for the talented chef and entrepreneur. She saw potential for the space to hold multiple businesses that would enliven the city she now calls home.

The first storefront to open is SHEF, a vintage cookware and houseware store operated by Stroup’s sister, Jennifer Santillana. Santillana has been buying and selling vintage furniture and decor out of her home in Scotts Valley for more than decade, and has sourced many items in SHEF from her personal collection.

Tabitha Stroup's cookbook collection has become a free cookbook library at SHEF.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

She describes her style as “midcentury California modernism,” and offers a mixture of unique antiques and new items for the home, kitchen and entertaining, like vintage glassware, midcentury modern furniture and charming entertaining pieces.

SHEF also boasts a free cookbook library, composed of Stroup’s impressive collection of cookbooks. Although the books can’t be checked out, visitors are welcome to use SHEF’s copy machine or their phones to take pictures of the recipes to take home. “Different items will come and go for sale, but the library will always be here for the public to come and use,” says Santillana.

The sustainable nature of the shop was intentional. “I just like the whole idea of green design, of using things that have already been made, not necessarily buying new for everything,” says Santillana. “It ties into what Tabitha does with Terroir in a Jar, because with her company, she is helping get excess produce from different organic farms around the county and turning it into a product, a jam, jelly, bloody mary mix, all sorts of different things to help reduce the food waste. We’re both green businesses in that respect.”

Next door to SHEF, Stroup shares that what was once the main dining room of the Miramar will transform into a meeting place-slash-classroom for hire, called 526 Main: A Place to Gather, A Place to Learn. “I want it to be a hub of ideas and thoughts, education and growth,” says Stroup, who has put her friend Laurie King at the helm.

The fourth and final business in the space will take over what was once the bar of the restaurant. Although currently completely vacant, the existing features — a giant curved bar, huge pink-and-white-checkered tiles — radiate vintage charm.

Stroup envisions a coffee shop, perhaps with its own roastery, that morphs into a bar that serves local beer, wine, hard cider and kombucha after hours. Stroup hints that she is already in talks with a local farmer to head up that project.

Tabitha Stroup (right) and Jennifer Santillana inside SHEF on Main Street in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Stroup thinks that by this time next year, all three businesses will be thriving. “It’s exciting for the city, and it’s exciting for me to be able to offer to the community different angles of ‘food love’ than just what we put in our mouth,” says Stroup. “I’m really excited.”

For locations, hours and more, follow SHEF on Instagram at @shef.831.

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