When Susannah Schnick told her business partner Leslie Nishiyama she was entering Picnic‘s chicken liver mousse into the annual Good Food Awards, Nishiyama was initially unsure it was worth the $75 entry fee.
“We need to think of every dollar we’re spending,” Nishiyama said. With a background in business operations, working at a tech startup and an engineering lab, Nishiyama is often the more practical of the two women who run the one-year-old rotisserie and charcuterie business. They both agreed, “we just have no chance” of winning, but Schnick, the butcher and self-professed “sausage queen” — the jelly to Nishiyama’s peanut butter — decided, “Let’s shoot for the moon!”
It’s a good thing she did. Earlier this month, Picnic’s chicken liver mousse was announced as a finalist in the charcuterie category of the 2019 Good Food Awards.
Schnick has been perfecting the recipe for years, changing it drastically from a version of the mousse she found in an old issue of Bon Appetit. Her version is flavored with bacon, shallots, fresh herbs and bourbon and gets its rich, silky-smooth texture from the addition of butter, heavy cream and gelatin. And, of course, there’s chicken liver, an ingredient that can be a hard sell for squeamish eaters, but you wouldn’t know that from visiting Picnic’s farmers market stands (in downtown Berkeley on Saturdays and at Kensington on Sundays), where the mousse is one of its most popular items. The secret is teaching people they actually like chicken liver by “schmearing” it on crackers and giving it out as free samples.
“People will eat any sample,” Schnick said, half-jokingly. She said many shoppers will try the mousse without even asking what it is and then come back to the stand to find out what delicious thing they ate. Even the harshest and pickiest eaters — kids — will try it and love it.
Another noteworthy Picnic specialty with a surprising farmers market fanbase: the porchetta di testa. Not to be confused with a traditional porchetta (crispy roasted boneless rolled pork belly), the porchetta di testa is made from the face of a whole hog’s head. The pork is cured in salt and spices for five days, then rolled up tightly and shrouded in plastic wrap, before taking a 10-hour sous vide bath. After an overnight rest, the roll is chilled, then sliced thinly to serve as charcuterie. Schnick, who isn’t really a fan of gristly head cheese, said the porchetta di testa is an elegant version, with a more tender, smoother texture.
Picnic also offers a variety of sausages, salami, country pâté, traditional porchetta roasts and smoked hams.
For the past year, the two farmers markets have been Picnic’s gateway to their customers. Picnic’s meaty goods are mostly made with locally sourced ingredients, like sustainable meats from Marin Sun Farms, bacon from The Baconer and donuts from Albany’s Happy Donuts (the latter two are found in Picnic’s maple glazed donut and bacon breakfast sausage).
After starting the business in June 2017, Schnick and Nishiyama moved into the shared facility at Oakland’s Forage Kitchen, where they do everything from preparing spice mixtures and chopping fresh herbs to breaking down whole animals and packaging their products to sell at the weekend markets. For now, it’s just the two of them, but that soon will change when they open their brick-and-mortar store in Albany next spring.
A retail store selling take-out rotisserie chickens, charcuterie and “everything you can bring to a picnic” was the original business plan, and the pair had a storefront on Solano Avenue that was set to be their shop a while ago. But the space fell through, so the partners decided to work out of Forage Kitchen and sell at farmers markets to build a customer base until they found a new spot. Despite the change of plans, the one thing that has been constant is their insistence the shop be in Albany.
Albany is the common bond these two women share. Schnick was born in Albany and raised in Berkeley; Nishiyama was born in Berkeley and raised in Albany. They’ve been next-door neighbors in Albany for the past six years, but they didn’t actually get to know each other until they had kids at the same time.
Schnick had long worked in the food industry, and got into charcuterie about six years ago. After taking a sausage-making class at Fatted Calf in Napa, she applied for a job at the now-defunct Café Rouge in Berkeley, where the head butcher took her under his wing. She was there for two years before she got pregnant with twins and decided to seek employment at a less physically demanding gig, working behind the counter at Ver Brugge, the butcher and fish shop in Rockridge. After giving birth to her sons, she returned to the more nitty gritty side of the meat craft, working at Clove & Hoof in Temescal, where she not only learned more technical skills, especially in whole-animal butchery, but was encouraged to develop her own style as a chef.
“John [Blevins, co-owner of Clove & Hoof] is a crazy chef who puts flavors you wouldn’t expect together,” she said. “He stoked creativity in chefs.” Schnick was a butcher at Clove & Hoof for about two years before she began thinking about starting her own business. That was about the time she started going on walks with the mother next door, shooting off business plans.
At the time, Nishiyama was also looking for a change. After her daughter was born, she began to get antsy “sitting behind a computer all day.” When Schnick suggested they open Picnic together, she saw a way to do something new, work in a field she was passionate about (although she had never worked in the food industry, she ran a food blog and had even considered starting her own baby-food company), while bringing business and finance skills to the table that Schnick didn’t have. They both knew it was a risk to start a business, but they felt strongly that Picnic would be filling a need in Albany for high-quality prepared take-out foods.
When it opens next spring, Picnic will be in a 1000-square-foot space in the building that formerly housed Four Corners Café on San Pablo Avenue (at Solano). Schnick said the space will have an “Old World European” feel to it. A counter will separate the space, where customers can order charcuterie, salads and sides, fresh pastas, pickles and more. In the back will be an open kitchen, where Picnic will make foods and host weekly butchery classes. At the front of the shop, there’ll be a rotisserie spinning whole chickens and traditional porchetta, as well as refrigerator and freezer cases with grab-and-go items, like sandwiches, soups and frozen stocks. Most of what Picnic sells will be housemade, but some items will be sourced, like bread from As Kneaded Bakery in San Leandro and cheese from a yet-to-be-determined local cheesemaker.
In the meantime, Schnick and Nishiyama are grateful their original retail plans took a year-long detour. They credit their time at Forage Kitchen and the farmers markets (where they’ll still have weekly stands, even after the shop opens) with connecting them with like-minded food makers and giving them a better and stronger footing in the business.
And now, as a Good Food Awards finalist (award winners will be announced on Jan. 11), they’re feeling even more confident, especially Schnick, the creator of the luscious chicken liver mousse.
“There’s no way I’m changing that recipe,” she said.Find Picnic from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturdays, at the downtown Berkeley farmers market; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sundays, at the Kensington farmers market. The shop will be at 862 San Pablo Ave. (at Solano), Albany in spring 2019.