For nearly 40 years now, Specialty Foods, Inc., a small, bustling grocery store in Old Oakland, has been the Bay Area’s definitive source for saltfish and akee, fermented cassava flour, Scotch bonnet pepper sauce, and Ting — all of the different food products that helped give African and Caribbean immigrants a brief taste of home. It is the Bay Area’s oldest African and Caribbean market. And sometime in the next couple of weeks, it will close its doors for the last time.
Nina Cruz, Specialty Foods’ second-generation owner, says the decision just came down to a need to prioritize family: She’s due to give birth to her first baby next month. Her other two siblings who help run the shop both have full-time jobs. She hasn’t been able to take her 77-year-old mother, Adelaida Castro, who opened the store with her husband in the ’70s, on a vacation in years. So, Cruz decided it was just time to call it quits. She’s slashed prices 40 percent across the board, and once the store has liquidated its inventory, that will be that. “We don’t expect to be here past the end of this month,” Cruz says.
It will be the end of an era, to say the least — and part of a troubling trend, as many of Oakland’s historic, long-standing ethnic markets have closed in recent years: La Borinqueña, one of the last remnants of the old Mexican enclave in Old Oakland, closed in 2015, and Italian-American mainstay Genova Delicatessen shuttered the year after that.
“For the last few years, Oakland has been losing the diversity that makes this town so special, and the closing of [Specialty Foods] feels like another sad milestone in that trend,” says Liam O’Donoghue, a local historian who hosts the podcast East Bay Yesterday.
The loss of Specialty Foods is especially poignant because there are so few markets specializing in West African and Caribbean products. Most of the others are also in Oakland: a West African market called Man Must Wak located right next door, and Minto Jamaican Market in Temescal. But Specialty Foods is the oldest and most well known of the bunch — a neighborhood staple for both home cooks and quite a few prominent local chefs.
Sarah Kirnon, who runs the Caribbean restaurant Miss Ollie’s just down the street in Old Oakland, says she’s been shopping there since the early 2000s, when she was working as a chef in San Francisco. “It was one of those familiar places for me, just seeing the things from home,” says Kirnon, who grew up in Barbados.
Nigel Jones, the chef and co-owner of the Uptown Oakland Jamaican restaurant Kingston 11, says what stood out to him when he first visited the store 10 years ago were the highly specific, idiosyncratic items that it carried — the cans of Milo powdered chocolate drink and packages of Excelsior water crackers he remembered having when he was a kid in Jamaica.
For Cruz, stocking those obscure items — the fermented cassava flours, the salted fish, the different sodas and snack foods from people’s home countries — was one of the genuine pleasures of the job. “It would genuinely make my heart smile when people would get so excited,” she says.
Back in 1977, Cruz’s parents, Baltazar and Adelaida Castro, originally opened the business as a Filipino market called Oriental Lucky Market. But within a few years, Cruz explains, a large influx of immigrants from Africa and the West Indies arrived in the Bay Area only to find that they didn’t have any place to buy groceries. The Castros realized there was a need for a specialty market to serve that demographic. At the time they made the shift, sometime during the ’80s, it was the only shop in the Bay Area that specialized in African and Caribbean food products.
Many, many times over the years, Cruz says she would be asked what Filipinos were doing selling groceries from Africa and the islands. And she would always tell them the same thing: that all of those countries are near the equator, that they all eat things like plantains and rice. “We all use the same ingredients,” she says. “We just cook them differently.”
There’s something quintessentially Oakland about a Filipino family running, for decades, a grocery store that primarily catered to an entirely different immigrant community — and not just as a way to exploit the market, but in good faith and for the long haul, as a kind of sincere cross-cultural dialogue.
“They were committed to it,” Jones says. “The products that they had, they were authentic. They didn’t have to do that.... That’s why they became successful.”
For Kirnon’s restaurant, the market would regularly ship in a pallet of rare ingredients from the West Indies: sugarcane vinegar, Demerara sugar, pigeon peas, and more. “So now where do we source them from?” Kirnon said. “It’s going to leave a big gap for a lot of Africans and West Indians who have businesses and live here.”
Jones, for his part, remembers that for years Specialty Foods was the only place in the Bay Area where he could buy dried pimento leaves and pimento bark from Jamaica, a key ingredient in making jerk chicken (and what Americans typically refer to as “allspice”) until the store lost its supplier a few years back. He hasn’t been able to find another source ever since.
Even more profound than the impact on a restaurant’s supply chain, though, is the impact the loss of Specialty Foods will have on the community, especially as Oakland continues to grapple with issues of displacement and gentrification.
“It’s not that the supermarket is gone,” Kirnon says. “You’ve taken a kind of ritual away from people.”
For long-time customers mourning the store’s imminent departure, there is one saving grace. Cruz says that while she hasn’t yet been able to find a buyer who would be willing to take over the business and keep it running, she’s very much open to that possibility. And she isn’t asking for a lot for the business — roughly the cost of a Range Rover, she says.