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Community Highlights: Meet Carla Berger of Golden Sage Market

Today we’d like to introduce you to Carla Berger.

Hi Carla, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I grew up in NYC and actually just moved to California in 2020. My partner and I had been looking to move to the West Coast for years, and remote working during Covid made that a reality. I began my career in advertising, and somewhere between different marketing & agency jobs, I knew the food industry was where I had to be. I had no idea what I wanted to do in it, I just knew I had to get there. So I enrolled in NYU’s Food Studies Master’s program and took six years to really figure out what I wanted to do. Turns out, what I wanted to do had actually been my childhood dream of owning a specialty food store!

I’ve always been obsessed with food, and it’s always been a really important part of my family. I’m the type of person who wakes up in the morning and thinks about what I want for dinner for the next three nights. As much as I knew I wanted to work in food, I never thought I’d actually start my own business.

In my previous jobs, I led client services and then operations for small creative businesses and had fallen into the role of the right-hand-woman to other business owners, managing a team and making sure things got done. I’m super fortunate that those roles really prepared me to start and run my own business. I had to learn how to deal with people (clients, creatives, production folks), plan projects, make sure people communicate properly to get the job done – so it’s been fun to translate all those roles in my growing one-person business.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I don’t think starting a business will ever be as smooth as I’m comfortable with! The road to get to even *thinking* about starting my own business wasn’t so smooth either. I’d spent the previous 15+ years working just for a paycheck. I was laid off a couple of times and spent WAY too much time worrying about other people’s businesses. Burnout is real! I hit a bit of a low right before the pandemic, which forced me to take a look at how and where I chose to spend my time. So it was clear to me even before I began working on Golden Sage Market that I wanted to slow down and slowly build a company that fits my lifestyle – not one based on anyone else’s goals to grow or scale.

I will say I’ve been extremely fortunate to have found an incredibly supportive community, both within my existing network and in my huge new network of amazing food producers, brands, and other small business owners out here in the desert. I’m a solopreneur, so I make every decision, do EVERY task, and only have myself to blame if I don’t reach a goal. It can get overwhelming and lonely at times, so it’s great to be surrounded by this network!

Appreciate you sharing that. What should we know about Golden Sage Market?
Golden Sage Market is a specialty food store that sells really delicious & unique small-batch, sustainably-made food & drinks from California. The idea for Golden Sage Market came from my experiences with food during the pandemic while I was finishing up my master’s degree. I’d been exposed to all sorts of issues with the food system that I never knew existed – issues that were only exacerbated during a global pandemic.

For the first three months of the pandemic, I was laser-focused on having two weeks’ worth of meals in our apartment at any given time. You can basically get anything delivered in Manhattan, but the larger grocery stores I usually shopped at became unreliable – they either had no delivery slots available, or they ran out of food. So I pretty much spent those months relying on a bunch of local restaurants, wineries, breweries & distilleries for all my groceries.

That’s what inspired me to start Golden Sage Market – the local & regional food system supported me in a time of need when the national and global food system couldn’t, and I became acutely aware of the importance of local food. I felt the need to figure out a way to continue supporting that in a sustainable way, which I ended up doing by creating a specialty food store that specifically supports local & regional food producers.

I work with all kinds of food producers – from small local cooks, I meet at the farmers market who are working out of their home kitchens to more established brands who may be in some larger stores but place huge importance on sustainable practices in their business and the production of their food. Sustainably has become a loaded term, but to me, it means operating in a way that’s good for people and good for the planet. So whether the company is certified organic, just uses organic practices, or gives a portion of their profits back to the communities they serve – it’s all sustainable to me.

You’ll always find quality over quantity at Golden Sage Market. I taste everything before I sell it since it’s important that I’m selling truly delicious products and that I believe in what I sell. I also love food so tasting new products is my favorite part of the job!

As of right now, Golden Sage Market is an e-commerce store and I have two “outposts” out here in the desert. One is inside of Windmill City Super #1 in Palm Springs, and the other is inside of Hi-Desert Daydream in Twentynine Palms, right outside Joshua Tree National Park. My goal is to eventually have my own brick-and-mortar wine bar & specialty market, but I’ve found these collaborations to be the perfect way to grow the business.

The crisis has affected us all in different ways. How has it affected you and any important lessons or epiphanies you can share with us?
I’ve learned how important it is to take risks and to trust your intuition! When things were so uncertain, I made the bold (and honestly, uncharacteristic) decision that there was no reason NOT to take the chance of moving out to California and starting a business I knew I wanted to start. It was much easier to do when there wasn’t much to lose.

It also forced me to think strategically about how I’d launch. One of the hugest lessons I learned from all the resilient food businesses I drew inspiration from is that it’s crucial to have multiple sources of revenue contributing to the bottom line in order to be a sustainable business. The shutdowns and capacity restrictions didn’t make for the most stable environment to start a brick-and-mortar business (nor did I have the capital to fund it). So I learned that e-commerce – while not my ultimate vision for Golden Sage Market – was a relatively inexpensive way to get things off the ground. It allowed me to establish a presence and credibility and attract partners and collaborators that would feel confident working with me.

Over the past year, I’ve seen so many small businesses start to treat their competitors as collaborators, which has it’s been one of the greatest realizations for me. Especially in the food industry! We’re all so much better together and we need to work with (not against) each other in order to build a sustainable food system.

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