It's been a long journey for People's Community Market and its founder Brahm Ahmadi. Over the span of almost a decade, the community organizer has been working toward opening a fresh food market in West Oakland, in a neighborhood almost completely bereft of healthy food options for its residents. Now, with the recent purchase of its future space, the market is closer to becoming fully realized.
The market, which will be tailored to suit the specific needs and wants of the neighborhood, will take up about 14,000 square feet at 3103 Myrtle St., at the intersection of San Pablo. For context, that's probably about one third the size of a typical grocery store like Safeway. And relative to the size of the store, there'll be a large produce section, taking up about one quarter of the floor space.
"We're less interested in the 'center of the aisle' stuff," said Ahmadi, referring to canned and boxed foods that typically occupy the center aisles of supermarkets, while fresh foods line the perimeter. And though the comparisons to traditional supermarkets are good for a frame of reference, Ahmadi says that People's isn't trying to mimic that model, aiming instead to position itself as a "full service food store."
That means there will be packaged groceries, but a limited assortment of two to three choices in any of the main categories, with a main focus on prepared food and produce. The produce section will be overseen by Bill Fujimoto, former proprietor of Berkeley's renowned Monterey Market. Fujimoto has been consulting since his exit from the family business in 2009; now he'll leverage his 40 years of experience working with farmers and producers to give People's a robust produce section. Fujimoto's own roots in the West Oakland community are deep— prior to opening Monterey Market, his father owned Acme Market in Old Oakland (across from Swan's Market). Bill worked there as a kid, before the freeways divided the neighborhood and his family moved their business to North Berkeley.
According to Ahmadi, neighborhood shoppers have three main priorities: quality, convenience and price. Meeting all three objectives will require a a delicate balance, including "opportunistic buying," which is essentially buying "ugly" produce that is still nutritious and high quality, but priced to sell. The produce section will also act as the warehouse— rather than creating fancy displays and storing most of the inventory in back, People's will buy bins of produce and use those as the displays on the market floor. That's also part of the balance: creating an environment that is approachable, inclusive and serviceable to the neighborhood, without creating either an environment where residents will feel out of place (like the swanky aisles of Whole Foods) or something resembling a hardcore bargain store (like Grocery Outlet).
Lowney Architecture, an Oakland based firm with an extensive portfolio of food retail spaces under its belt, is helping guide the design process, which Ahmadi says has to balance those concerns. To stay informed, the team behind the market is doing lots of community engagement and bouncing ideas off of residents via a community advisory council. "We share ideas with residents to get their feedback about how comfortable they feel coming here," said Ahmadi.
And along those lines, the café will offer several menus appealing to different segments of the community, including a Southern-inspired menu with jambalaya, gumbo, and collard greens, alongside a menu targeted to the Latino/Hispanic community. The different menus will also be split on price, including a "value menu" with smaller portions of the same options, geared towards those who might only have a couple bucks in their pocket but are looking for a good meal. It will fill a gap in a neighborhood with very few affordable, sit-down options for dining. The café will also be connected to the a "Front Porch Social Hall," where the market can host live music, speakers or community events after hours.
"The reason grocery stores don't come here isn't because the people don't want them, it's because operating a store in a neighborhood like this takes an unusual level of hard work, creativity and hutzpah," said Ahmadi. "Most people [groceries] aren't willing to think out of the box and tailor their store to the community."
The timeline for opening depends heavily on how long it will take the city of Oakland to approve permits, as well as a second DPO (Direct Public Offering) to raise more funds. Ahmadi hopes to break ground in November, with a soft opening in late summer of 2017. "It's an admittedly aggressive timeline," says Ahmadi, "but it's possible. Let's do it."