Neka Pasquale wasn’t looking to start a company. She was a Marin-based acupuncturist, trained in healing modalities like Reiki, and had a steady roster of clients. But as someone who had studied a lot about the healing power of food, she started offering dietary advice to her clients, too. While she didn’t know it at the time, she was setting the foundation for her company.
“To see these people transform was very cool. They felt so great,” she said. “I’d do a cooking class and hear things like, ‘I feel so good but it doesn’t taste as good as when you make it.’”
In 2009, she began making juices in a commercial kitchen just to supply her clients. From there, her work just kept on growing.
“This was before there were that many juice shops — Jamba Juice was about it,” said Pasquale. “It just went like wildfire, people in the city started calling me. I never thought I’d have a business; I loved doing acupuncture. It’s been a journey of letting go and going where life takes me.”
Her business, Urban Remedy, has just opened its first location in Berkeley on College Avenue. (Is it a coincidence that it’s a few doors away from lululemon? No doubt it will appeal to the same demographic.) Another location is opening soon in Oakland, near Whole Foods, and others are headed to Corte Madera, Walnut Creek and Lafayette. San Francisco will soon have its third Urban Remedy, and there are three stores in Marin.
Its Berkeley store is sparse and simple, with wares only offered along two walls with very little seating. Items are clearly meant to be (mostly) eaten elsewhere.
Urban Remedy offers 11 pre-made salads and bowls; soups such as veggie pho or raw carrot ($11.95); and breakfast items, meal replacements, and small portions of juices called shots and spikes. Single servings of proteins like a hard-boiled pastured egg ($1.25), Mary’s free-range chicken ($4) or Loch Duarte Salmon ($5.50) can be added to a salad. It also sells savory items like sweet potato hummus and veggies or cheesy kale chips ($4.50 to $7) and sweet snacks such as an almond brownie ($3.75 to $7). And, of course, there are 10 varieties of cold pressed juices ($8.75) and nut milks ($8.75), plus cleanse packages ($35 to $49) that can be shipped to your door.
There is no gluten or dairy in anything on the menu.
The idea of Urban Remedy, Pasquale explained, is that it is a “place you can come to [as] a food safe zone, where you never have to worry about gluten or dairy. There’s also no white sugar or white flour, canola or soybean or corn oil. I choose only the purest, cleanest ingredients, down to the [Himalayan pink] salt.” It goes without saying that Urban Remedy’s ingredients are almost all organic, and its items have a very short shelf-life — there are no preservatives of any kind. All desserts are raw and made from cashews or almond cream.
But in addition to being good for you, it’s important to Pasquale that her food is enjoyable. “It tastes good, which makes me feel good, knowing that it’s good for me. That’s always been my goal,” she said.
Indeed, we loved both salads we tried, and we were especially impressed with the desserts. Both the raw cacao mousse and tiramisu were rich and decadent, and they satisfied a sweet craving with just a spoonful or two.
Paquale has no culinary training. She grew up the child of hippies, living off the land in Humboldt County. “We lived in the middle of nowhere, where I caught frogs and sometimes slept in a tent in the middle of the forest by myself, and drank from a well. I have those roots that formed my relationship with food and the earth.”
She says she had the best of two cultures in her mother’s and father’s mothers, one Jewish, one Italian. Her Italian grandmother made “some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life.”
“I always loved food,” she continued. “It was always a creative outlet for me. My mom worked a lot, so I’d open ‘The Joy of Cooking,’ and make something like cream puffs or chicken paprikash.”
But her father was involved with restaurants, and she had met enough chefs to see that that a kitchen life was not one that she wanted for herself. She became an acupuncturist instead.
Her interest in food only continued to deepen in acupuncture school.
“One of our first classes was diet and Chinese medicine,” she said. The first time a Chinese medicine doctor felt her pulse and then proscribed her certain herbs to take, she was hooked on learning about the ancient medicinal properties of certain foods. It was an interest that only increased, as she began offering diet advice to her clients and saw how they were transforming in front of her eyes.
Meanwhile, her own palate and kitchen knowledge, paired with what she learned about food in acupuncture school, had her clients lining up for her juice blends, and demand was growing. She was beginning to see that she was going to have to quit her acupuncture practice. It was a difficult decision.
And she kept getting kicked out of the commercial kitchens she was renting space in, as her “little” operation was growing too large for them. “There would be delivery bags everywhere, and juice on the ceiling,” she said.
Not to mention that Pasquale was pregnant, and she was often making her juices in the wee hours of the morning.
Finally, she asked someone she knew to help her write a business plan, someone who, it turns out, was attending a business incubator conference and was willing to pitch her idea. This was in 2011.
It was a hit. She soon had a million dollars of investment money, she was taking frequent trips to L.A. to meet with her investors.
Urban Remedy has since taken off in a big way. While it started in San Rafael in 2012, her production kitchen has now moved to Point Richmond. She has 150 employees, including 10 members of one extended family. Her production manager has worked his way up from overseeing the San Rafael kitchen.
Pasquale oversees all the research and development, as well as the recipe testing. She mostly relies on her own palate; however, she said Israeli-British chef Yotam Ottolenghi is an influence, and a bit of Café Gratitude can be detected in her desserts.
No doubt Urban Remedy will continue its expansion, perhaps to Southern California next.
“It’s been a difficult journey, but I’ve learned so much and made so many mistakes,” said Pasquale. “I had to learn everything the hard way but it’s been a great learning experience.”