Hordes of young, energetic, and very hungry college students have roared back to Sonoma State University, and their number one concern at the end of the day is what to eat and where to eat it.
Oliver’s Market at 546 East Cotati Avenue is the most convenient place to shop. It has the biggest selection of already prepared foods to take out, take home, heat and eat. Under Oliver’s roof the selections are dazzling: There’s Mexican food, Japanese food, gourmet, California cuisine, build-your-own sandwiches and more. It’s all at the front of the store and the express checkout lanes make it easy, too.
No matter who you are, Oliver's boasts something for nearly everyone’s taste — wraps, tacos, sushi, panini, soups (both hot and cold) and “grab and go” salads. There’s a new hot bar with dishes such as fried catfish ($7.99 a pound) and delicious deep fried “Jo Jo” potatoes ($6.99 a pound).
Better yet, the food is fresh and much of it is made daily. The ingredients are largely local and the service is fast. There are in-store specials, and end-of-the day deals that aren’t widely advertised. It pays to pay attention to Oliver’s daily offerings.
At Oliver’s everyone on the crew cares. Connie Harkey manages the deli. She’s worked at Oliver’s for 12 years – in the Cotati store and at the Oliver’s Markets in Santa Rosa.
“In the Cotati Oliver’s, there are way more students than in the other stores,” Harkey says. “Thursday night is big in Cotati. Many of the students don’t have Friday classes so they’re ready to let loose. They come in for Mexican food.”
That’s where Milo Quintero enters the picture. He’s been at Oliver’s for 20 years. Quintero grills beef and chicken, makes quesadillas ($4.99 without meat, $5.95 with meat), burritos ( $3.99 for a mini basic, $5.99 for a grande) and tacos ($2.99 for one, $4.99 for two).
Harkey calls Quintero, “the taco King” and he’s as confident as a king about his Mexican cooking. When an SSU faculty member asks him what the secret is to top-notch Mexican food, Quintero smiles and says, “That’s a secret.”
Then he explains, “Everything here is to order, and nothing is out of a box or a jar. The meat is tender because it’s cooked slowly to bring out the juices and the flavors.”
Henry Oo – yes, his last name has double O’s - makes the sushi. The fish is fresh and the packages are carefully wrapped in plastic. California rolls are $5.94 for a 10.5-ounce package. “Sushi is good brain food,” Oo says.
Zac Larson runs the kitchen at the back of the store. He’s always on the lookout for new and exciting dishes to prepare, including gourmet entrees such as sesame Ahi Tuna ($18.99 a pound) and grilled wild King Salmon ($18.99 a pound).
“I’m the quality control man,” Larson says. “I do a lot of the ordering of produce, and I keep a lookout for food safety, too. Everything here is cooked at the proper temperature and refrigerated at the proper temperature, too.”
Larson buys produce for the store from small, local farms.
“The organic thing is still catching on,” he says. “New people are realizing the benefits all the time.”
At the end of a long day, Larson likes to take home a Delice De Bourgogne cheese ($17.99 a pound) – imported from France - and a bottle of Block #9 Pinot Noir ($11.09 a bottle). He shares the wine and the cheese with his wife, a student at Sonoma StateM.
For the upcoming Sonoma County Harvest Fair, Larson is on schedule to enter several of his signature dishes, hoping for gold medals. Shoppers can judge his artistry for themselves without waiting for the official judges to make their decisions. Swedish meatballs ($7.99 a pound) are flavorful, as are pork empanadas ($3.99 a pound), and stuffed chili relleno polenta ($7.99 a pound).
As a teacher at Sonoma State, I also do most of my shopping for food at Oliver’s. Every week I buy a two-pound container of the tomato basil soup ($8.99). It’s a staple of my diet. I buy Laura Chenel goat cheese – the Chabis is $4.99 for five ounces and the Chevre is $7.99 for an eight-ounce log. At the olive bar, I buy California calamatas and cured black olives ($9.99 a pound).
Oliver’s is open seven-days a week from seven AM to 11 p.m. Sonoma State students, faculty and staff members would be lost without it.
“I love this store,” Frederique Lavoipierre, who works at the university, says. “At the end of the day it can be really nice not to have to go home and start to cook. The take-out food is good and the fruits and vegetables are excellent.”
Oliver’s makes it easy for everyone – even for first year college students who have been eating mom’s cooking all their lives.
“We make food for people who can’t even boil water,” Harkey says. “There are directions on the packages for popular dishes such as lasagna and eggplant Parmesan. Our staff is helpful, too. We make it simple — and there’s no final exam either.”
Editor's note: The Sonoma County Harvest Fair is Sept. 30 through October 2 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.