Downtown Oakland and Environs Won’t be a Food Desert Much Longer
In the wake of last fall’s Smart & Final closure, several new stores are opening, and others have raised their profiles, showing that that swath of Oakland may not be such a food desert much longer.
Brahm Ahmadi, chief executive officer of Community Foods.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
When Smart & Final closed its downtown Oakland store last fall, city residents lost a convenient place to buy crates of apples, bread and milk, bulk cleaning products, and other low-cost household staples.
Regular customers were bereft but shouldn’t mourn for long. In its wake, several new stores are opening, and others have raised their profiles, showing that that swath of Oakland may not be such a food desert after all. West Oakland, the Jack London district, Chinatown, and downtown — home to thousands of longtime residents and thousands more to come in the next year or two — actually have a wealth of options for fresh food.
The highlight is undoubtedly Community Foods, slated to open this spring. This 14,000-square-foot, locally owned store will be West Oakland’s first full-service grocery since the early 1970s. Located at 31st Street and San Pablo Avenue, Community Foods will offer fresh produce, meat and seafood, dairy products, discount and bulk groceries, and a cafe and event space.
“We saw an opportunity and a need,” said Brahm Ahmadi, Community Foods’ chief executive officer. “We’re not doing this to make money. We’re trying to solve what we see as a public health issue in the neighborhood. We’re really committed to being an anchor in this community.”
Ahmadi was the founder of People’s Grocery at the West Oakland YMCA and has 20 years’ experience as a community organizer in West Oakland. But at some point, he said, he grew disillusioned with nonprofit work and its relentless fundraising and decided entrepreneurship might be a more effective way to improve the lives of longtime West Oakland residents, he said.
He and his colleagues raised $2 million in investments from more than 600 Oakland residents, which allowed the group to secure bank loans and larger investments. With input from neighbors and supporters, they eventually were able to buy property and start planning the perfect grocery store for West Oakland.
“Affordability is key,” Ahmadi said, noting that Oakland might be getting pricier but there’s still a need for low-cost, warehouse-style groceries. That’s especially true in West Oakland and the surrounding neighborhoods, he said, where he expects many customers will walk or take the bus to the store and not purchase more than two bags of groceries at a time.
That familiarity with the neighborhood and its shopping habits is what gives Community Foods an edge in an area where no large, full-service grocery store has found a winning business strategy in almost 50 years, he said.
“We actually think locality is the key to success,” he said. “Chain stores have the same format everywhere, but we can tailor our store to the neighborhood. It’s about economic opportunity, health, pride. … This is my contribution to affect change in a community that deserves it.”
Meanwhile, the city is not giving up hope of attracting other large grocery stores to the area. Talks have been on and off for years with Trader Joe’s for a store near the Amtrak station at Jack London Square, and city staffers are trying hard to entice a grocery store to the Gateway Plaza shopping center at 9th and Market streets, said Harry Hamilton, a spokesperson for the city’s Workforce and Economic Development department. The city is also working with Smart & Final to find another location in West Oakland.
City Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney pointed out that her district has several successful grocery stores, large and small, and hopefully more on the way.
“We are proud of the continued success of Mandela Grocery Cooperative in West Oakland, the HOPE Collaborative, which improves food offerings in corner markets, and two new Islamic specialty grocers — Salam Halal and Oasis Food Market — that both serve wholesome grocery and deli options,” she wrote in an email. “We know that Smart & Final wants to relocate in [District 3] and that other major retailers recognize the potential here. So the future looks bright.”
One of the newer small grocers is Howden Market, which opened three years ago at 16th and Webster streets. Business has been tough with all the construction in the area, but owner Kanitha Matoury said she’s not in it for the money. She wanted to give the neighborhood access to high-quality foods and a welcoming space to gather and socialize — something that’s increasingly rare as more people forego brick-and-mortar stores for online shopping.
“We call it the happy corner,” said Matoury, who also owns Spice Monkey restaurant next door. “We don’t just see this as retail. Our mission is to connect people, create community.”
She also wanted to help out her employees. By having two businesses, she can better accommodate her employees’ scheduling needs.
“I wanted it to be a pleasant place to work, as well as a pleasant place to shop,” she said.
In the Jack London district, where hundreds of new units are under construction and the nearby Brooklyn Basin development will add 3,000 more, small businesses have been adapting to the influx of residents by expanding their food offerings, said Savlan Hauser, executive director of the Jack London Improvement District.
“Property prices are high and the density is not quite there yet, which has made it a challenge to attract businesses as low-margin as grocery stores,” she said. “But we’re getting close. We’re probably at a tipping point. … Meanwhile it’s important we support the businesses that are already here. Some of them have been very creative in filling niches.”
For example, Minimo wine shop partners with a community-supported fishery called Real Good Fish to sell fresh seafood, paired with Minimo’s wine selections.
“We’ve been doing this for two years now, as a response to the lack of a grocery store or brick and mortar market in Jack London,” said Minimo owner Erin Coburn. “We’ve become a popular pickup site in Oakland. No transaction goes through Minimo for the fish. We just host the ice chest for whatever gets caught in the sea the day before. … It’s become a wonderful gathering space, where people have gotten to know one another.”
In addition, Bicycle Coffee now stocks ice cream and salads to-go. The neighborhood’s produce wholesalers, as well as Smart Food Service Store, primarily sell to other businesses but will also sell to individuals.
She also pointed out that Chinatown hosts numerous small groceries, and the greater downtown area has two popular farmer’s markets: Jack London Square on Sundays and Old Oakland on Fridays. That’s more options for fresh food than many other neighborhoods.
“This is not really a food desert,” she said. “People love to shop local. It’s actually a great time for food businesses looking to open here.”
Grocery Stores in the Downtown(ish) Area
Nature’s Best Foods, 1431 Jackson St., 510-451-4505
Howden Market, 1630 Webster St., 510-922-8385
Produce Pro Market, 2314 San Pablo Ave., 510-893-2222
New Tin’s Market, 310 Seventh St., 510-832-6256
Won Kee Supermarket, 216 Seventh St., 510-893-1308
Koreana Plaza, 2354 Telegraph Ave., 510-986-1171
Smart Food Service Store (formerly Cash & Carry), 400 Oak St., 510-251-9345
Old Oakland Farmers Market, Ninth Street and Broadway, Fridays.
Sincere Seafood (inside Swan’s Market), 907 Washington St., 510-832-3866
Taylor Sausage (inside Swan’s Market), 907 Ninth St., 510-832-6448
Ratto’s International Market and Deli, 821 Washington St., 510-832-6503
Community Foods, 3105 San Pablo Ave., 510-995-7498
Sprout’s, 3035 Broadway, 510-851-7688
Grocery Outlet, 2900 Broadway, 510-465-5649
Whole Foods, 230 Bay Place, 510-834-9800
Salam Halal Market, 999 Seventh St., 510-835-2044
Mandela Foods Coop, 1420 Seventh St., 510-452-1133
Oasis Food Market, 3045 Telegraph Ave., 510-655-511
HOPE Collaborative, works with corner stores in Oakland to provide healthy food, 510-444-4133