Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Grocery Store for West Oakland

By Luke Tsai
Tue, Oct 30, 2012 at 1:08 PM

Finally, after a ten-year wait, West Oakland is getting a new full-service grocery store: If all goes according to plan, People’s Community Market (PCM) will open by the end of 2013 — a culmination of the decade that its CEO, Brahm Ahmadi, has spent working to get the project off the ground.

Last Thursday, Ahmadi, who founded the affiliated nonprofit People’s Grocery, kicked off an ambitious investment campaign with a “Front Porch” community gathering and pitch session held at the Numi Tea Garden in East Oakland’s warehouse district.

The fact that West Oakland has a shortage of places where residents can buy affordable, healthy food is well documented, but the facts are still startling: There’s only one small retail grocer — the Mandela Foods Cooperative — serving a community of 25,000 people. Meanwhile, the neighborhood has some fifty “corner stores” that sell mostly low-quality foods at high prices — a ratio of about one for every 500 people. (Rockridge, by comparison, has about one corner store for every 7,000 people, Ahmadi estimated.)

Brahm Ahmadi, CEO of the Peoples Community Market, addressing a group of prospective investors.
  • Spencer Wilkinson
  • Brahm Ahmadi, CEO of the People's Community Market, addressing a group of prospective investors.
Standing amid baskets of fresh produce, Ahmadi spoke movingly about the lengths to which some West Oakland residents now go in order to shop at a real grocery store, traveling miles by foot or crisscrossing the city via public transportation.

“What people have to go through if they want good healthy food is ridiculous,” he said.

But, as Ahmadi pointed out, this wasn’t always the case: In the Forties and Fifties, West Oakland was home to lots of grocery stores, big and small — back before “white flight,” before the last of those grocery stores shut down or moved elsewhere, sometime in the Nineties. Meanwhile, efforts to convince the big supermarket chains to open up a branch in West Oakland have largely fallen on deaf ears.

And yet a study commissioned by PCM estimated that West Oakland residents spend nearly $60 million on groceries every year — not an insignificant amount of buying power. Right now most of that money exits the community. Why not open a grocery store that would keep that money in West Oakland? And why not also make the new store a community hub — a place with a literal front porch where people could gather?

In 2002, Ahmadi founded People’s Grocery with the intention of opening just such a place, only to realize that — by his own admission — he lacked both the know-how and the financial wherewithal to bring it to fruition. So, for the past decade, People’s Grocery has operated as a nonprofit, helping to bring nutritious, affordable food to West Oakland on a smaller scale — through a mobile pop-up grocery store, operated out of the back of a truck, and through a bargain-priced CSA program.

Now, Ahmadi is close to achieving his dream: a 12,000-square-foot grocery store — about the size of a typical Trader Joe’s — with fully staffed meat, seafood, and cheese departments; a mix of organic and conventional produce; and a deli section selling culturally targeted prepared foods like gumbo, jambalaya, and pozole.

The final hurdle won’t be easy: To fully fund the People’s Community Market, the company will need to raise $1.2 million, via what’s known as a Direct Public Offering (DPO) — a grassroots investment campaign that’s asking members of the community to become shareholders, with a minimum investment of $1,000. Once that $1.2 million target has been secured, the California FreshWorks Fund has agreed to chip in a loan for the final $2.4 million.

David Guendelman, the company’s chief financial officer, stressed that the funds the People’s Community Market — a for-profit venture — is soliciting are investments, not donations. Investors, who must be California residents, will be buying shares in the company; if the store is successful, they’ll receive a modest return on their investment. You can read all the fine print on the PCM website.

Front Porch gathering at the Numi Tea Garden.
  • Front Porch gathering at the Numi Tea Garden.
If Thursday night’s campaign launch was any indication, the prospective grocery store already has plenty of high-profile allies: The emcee for the evening was Bryant Terry, a well-known vegan cookbook author and food justice activist; the keynote speaker was Sam Mogannam, owner of San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Market.

Ahmadi has also assembled an impressive leadership team for the company, including Guendelman and, notably, Bill Fujimoto, the legendary former Monterey Market produce guru.

The next Front Porch event is scheduled for Thursday, November 29, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., at the La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley. Further details (and information about reserving a spot) will be forthcoming on the People’s Community Market website.

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