Despite people’s perception that grocery stores thrived during the COVID era, it wasn’t really the case for many smaller independent grocers, says Ahmadi, “The blessings of the pandemic in the food industry have not been evenly distributed.”
At Community Foods, sales were essentially flat a few months after the pandemic. And since November, the number of customers visiting the store has dropped another 28 percent. This prompted the business to lay off seven full-time employees – more than a third of its employees – and cut working hours for some of the remaining employees.
The problem, says Ahmadi, is that even the initial increase in sales wasn’t necessarily positive. Community Foods had only been open for about nine months when the pandemic broke out, and as a small, relatively new independent grocer, the company didn’t have cash reserves to add to its inventory to meet sudden demand for certain essential items . “Many larger retailers were able to do that,” explains Ahmadi. “For example, toilet paper was one of the big ones: you could order extra pallets of toilet paper, move them into storage, wait for shelves to clear, refill, and maintain inventory.”
At Community Foods, the store’s shelves were simply never replenished during the first few weeks of the pandemic, once depleted – for months in some cases. And so “customers came in, saw that we didn’t have the goods, and left,” says Ahmad.
Brahm Ahmadi, CEO of the Community Foods Market, poses in the product department. (Community Foods Market)
The situation was exacerbated by what Ahmadi describes as “anti-competitive” practices by major grocery chains by companies entering into agreements with suppliers to block exclusive access to certain products and excluding smaller markets such as community foods. It’s a practice that was so prevalent during the pandemic that the National Grocers Association came out recently with a paper condemn what these are antitrust violations.
Ahmadi says pivotal points in the midst of the pandemic like adding online ordering with free shipping for seniors within a five kilometer radius have helped a little, but nowhere near enough. Given the devastating impact of the COVID crisis on low-income color communities, Ahmadi recognizes that many regular customers of the West Oakland business simply cannot afford to spend much. Although Ahmadi says his store’s prices are fairly competitive with the larger grocery chains, many regulars have told him that they are now taking the bus to shop at Walmart or Costco. Ahmadi says they will tell him, “I really just want to shop with you. This is our neighborhood market. “- but also:” I have a fixed interest rate. I really have to stretch it. ”
The aim of the booster campaign is to increase customer traffic by 100 people per day over the next 30 days. According to Ahmadi, the company chose to go this route instead of running a standard crowdfunding campaign in the hope that private investors, who have deeper pockets, will give the Community Foods Market the huge cash flow it needs. (There is a active GoFundMe campaignbut for backers who live too far from the store to shop there regularly.)
However, according to Ahmadi, it is difficult to convince large investors to raise funds at a time when business is struggling to get customers in the door. The hope is that the campaign will help turn the tide. With that in mind, says Ahmadi, it’s helpful for boosters to shop in the store, even if they can only spend $ 5 or $ 10 at a time.
“That helps me get back to these potential donors and tell this story,” says Ahmadi. “The community responded to our call. It gathers behind us. It chooses us again. “