When Brahm Ahmadi received early renderings of the Community Foods Market, he backed away on the wood accents throughout the interior.
“I said, ‘No way. That’s the wrong price picture, ”he said.
For nearly a decade, Ahmadi has carefully ironed every detail for West Oakland’s first full-fledged grocery store in decades, which opened on San Pablo Ave. in early May. 3105 is to be opened Essen Desert, image counts. Now, after years of delays, the Community Foods Market is almost ready.
Local residents look forward to many things: finally going to a grocery store, having a central hangout, and feeling like West Oakland is on a revival. However, there are some concerns about how the business could further beautify the neighborhood and whether it will be affordable enough to serve the people who need it most.
The latter is paramount to Ahmadi, which is why he skipped wood accents, greens, and other decorations that could inadvertently signal that the Community Foods Market isn’t for everyone.
For this reason, he convened a community advisory council in 2012, which met monthly for four years to discuss everything from products and services to personnel development. He started organizing the nonprofit People’s Grocery in West Oakland in 2002.
“Before you start getting into things, you want to make sure you have a real soundboard and are doing it right,” Ahmadi said.
Paul Chinn / The Chronicle
While a Pak ‘n Save is less than a mile away in Emeryville, West Oakland itself doesn’t have a full grocery store – it’s mostly liquor and convenience stores, as well as the small health food store, Mandela Foods Cooperative.
Oakland lifelong resident Philip Lang has West Oakland family roots dating back to the 1940s. He has noticed that friend after friend are leaving the neighborhood and can no longer afford the rising rents. When he heard that West Oakland was finally getting a proper grocery store, he thought of these friends.
“If you can get through the turbulent times, you can get a grocery store. But if not, you are probably living in another food wasteland, ”he said.
Beyond groceries, neighbors expressed a strong desire for an all-day coffee shop with dinner, live evening entertainment, community events, and food that reflects West Oakland’s demographics: think gumbo and tamales.
“Everyone’s talking about food deserts,” said Carol Wyatt, who lives four blocks from the market. “This is bigger than that. This is about a need to anchor in the community.
“Can you imagine a company coming into the community and the people who start it actually asking you what you think and what you want? That’s unheard of, ”she continued. “It’s what makes neighborhoods grow and creates them.”
Ahmadi raised $ 15 million in federal grants, charitable loans, and a direct public offering – currently there are 640 shareholders – for the 14,000-square-foot market. It covers all the basics: producing; Flesh; Seafood; and a deli with sandwiches, salads and take-away items to order.
Paul Chinn / The Chronicle
To handle the products, Ahmadi brought Bill Fujimoto, who worked as a manager at the Monterey Market in Berkeley for about 30 years. The way the Community Foods Market has been funded, as well as its relatively small size and ethos as a social enterprise, allows it to keep prices down. For example, a pile of kale costs $ 1.49 for organic products and 99 cents for conventional products – about half the price of many local stores.
On the mezzanine floor, non-profit organizations offer their customers free services: Cooking Matters offers cooking classes and shop tours, while LifeLong Medical Care is supposed to conduct health examinations and consultations.
Health is an important part of Community Foods Market’s mission, although it’s not a health food store that focuses on trending products like plant-based artificial meat or shelf-stable probiotics. Ahmadi said the situation in the West Oakland desert is contributing to a high rate of diet-related chronic diseases, with nearly half of the population being unhealthy.
For Ahmadi, the subject is also personal. Most of his grandparents died of heart disease. His mother had quadruple bypass in her early 70s. He believes poor nutrition was a factor.
“It would be great to give people some options so they don’t try to make changes after an event,” he said.
A rewards program will encourage customers to choose less processed options in the aisles.
Paul Chinn / The Chronicle
“They won’t just turn them into fruits, vegetables and protein – that will never happen,” said Ahmadi. “But if you can remove them from the high-fructose corn syrup added to an option on this spectrum that is better for you, that’s a big win.”
To help customers figure out what to cook for dinner, the store sets up displays that surround an entire dish and consist of the recipe, nutritional information, and all of the ingredients needed to cook it. Finally, Ahmadi hopes to coordinate this program with free cooking classes and additional discounts if people buy all of the ingredients at once.
David Peters, a native of West Oakland who has lived and bought market share in the neighborhood for 40 years, looks forward to grocery shopping and making the cafe his new weekend hangout. However, he is aware that this could further fuel gentrification in West Oakland.
“The market will make the neighborhood more desirable, drive prices up and lead to more displacement,” he said. “I think that’s the inevitable effect of beautiful things.”
Peters remembers going to a Safeway on San Pablo Avenue as a kid – it closed in the 1970s. Now it feels like the neighborhood is coming full circle.
“It’s a symbol of rebirth,” he said. “People who have lived here for a long time are pretty excited to get a market back.”
Janelle Bitker is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @janellebitker