The corner store is a vital indicator of the economic, racial, and cultural makeup of any community. What people buy — whether it’s Coke or coconut water, deli meat or goat cheese, Hostess cakes or gluten-free baked goods, cheap hard liquor or expensive artisan brews — offers insight into the kinds of customers that frequent a business and their purchasing power.
For many people, the corner grocer remains their main — or only — source of sustenance. And, perhaps, equally importantly, a gathering place in a given neighborhood.
Some corner stores unapologetically flaunt booze and fast food, others offer ethnic staples or specialty foods, still others a combo of both. The products on the shelves — eclectic and quirky as they sometimes are (incense and pantyhose alongside a sea of cigarettes and processed salty or sugary food-like substances wrapped in fluorescent-colored packaging) provide clues to the character of the surrounding community.
The owners and managers who work behind the counters have their own tales to tell. Corner stores in cities around the country are traditionally run by immigrants and Berkeley is no exception. Of the five stores profiled below, all located on or close to Ashby Avenue, four owners have roots in Yemen, one is a first-generation American whose father was also a storekeeper.
Many corner store owners come in search of a better life for their families with hopes for a brighter future. English is often not their first language, some deal with crime and violence in or near their stores, and they’re not immune to hardship or hard work. Some become integral to their communities, others prefer to toil in relative anonymity.
In the first of an occasional series on Berkeley’s corner stores, we set out to get a taste of the flavor of five such grocers in South Berkeley.
Ashby Marketplace on Ashby Street at College Avenue
Owner: Ramiz Hasan, 30, owned store for two years this October, has worked in corner stores in San Francisco with his father since the age of 12.
Hometown: Born and raised in the Bay Area.
Best-selling items: Flavored drinks, teas, organics, gluten-free goods, chocolate, deli sandwiches.
Clientele: “As eclectic as the community: Local residents, intellectuals from the university, including brilliant students, tourists, vivacious people, busybodies, a little bit of everything.”
What’s next: Expanded tea and gluten-free section and beer and wine in the Berkeley store. Plans to open an organic convenience store in San Francisco.
Claim to fame: Friends since high school with San Francisco sandwich guru Ike Shehadeh, who’s been known to pop by Ashby Marketplace. Last month, Shehadeh posted a tweet when he spotted the actress Jennifer Garner in line at Hasan’s store after she’d attended a breakfast for First Lady Michelle Obama at the Claremont Hotel.
Ashby Super Market
Ashby Super Market on Ashby at Martin Luther King Way
Owner: Anwar Hussein, 36, whose family hails from Yemen, has run this store for five years. He lives in Oakland and has four sons and a daughter, who is soon to be married.
Manager: Obaida Jaber, 34
Best-selling items: Deli sandwiches, cold cuts, and falafel, pita, and hummus.
Clientele: “All kinds: African-American, Anglo, Middle Eastern.”
Store pros: “The location: Close to BART, the flea market, library, and theatre.”
Claim to fame: Frequented by actors and other theater types from nearby Ashby Stage.
Secret to success: “We sell no alcohol so we have no problems. It’s a good community here.”
Sacramento Market on Sacramento Street at Ashby
Owner: Yaser Musid, 40, has owned this market for just over two years and the nearby Friendly Market (at California and Ward Streets) for 18 years.
Hometown: Yemen, has lived in the U.S. for 20 years.
Best-selling items: A mix of grocery, deli items, beer and wine. Extensive spice selection. No hard liquor.
Clientele: “About 90-95 percent African American.”
Recent improvements: “More produce.”
Challenges: “Everything is so expensive. There’s not too much profit in the business anymore.”
Family matters: “I don’t want this life for my children. It’s fine for me to keep going here but I want my children to have opportunities and a better life. When you run a corner store you have to keep your eye on everything. No corner store for my children.”
McGee’s Market on McGee Avenue at Oregon
Owner: Eli Amhadi, 43, owned business for 15 years, lives across the street, has three children.
Best-selling items: A variety of grocery goods. Sells beer and wine, no hard liquor.
Clientele: “A mix of people, mostly from the neighborhood, most come in every day. It’s a good neighborhood. We never have problems. I know my customers and they know me.”
Pros: “I like to work for myself. I don’t like having a boss and having to do what someone else tells me to do.”
Cons: “It’s all I know how to do. It’s the only job I’ve ever done. I work seven days a week.”
J&B Fine Foods Market
J&B Fine Foods Market on Adeline Street at Harmon
Owner: Ali Kassim
Manager: Faiz Kaid, 40, Kassim’s brother, who has lived here 11 years. Kaid, who has seven children, lives above the store, as does Kassim, who has four children.
Hometown: Yemen. “When we first came here we were afraid for our children. We’d heard stories about kidnappings. But my children can walk to school here and I know people in the neighborhood look out for them.”
Best-selling items: Fried foods like chicken and chips, meat, sodas, candy. No longer sells alcohol.
Clientele: “A mix of black, white, Mexican, and Middle Eastern.”
Customer loyalty, part one: “One day a long time ago now, some guy came in and snatched a bunch of stuff and ran out of the store. My brother and I chased after him like a couple of crazies all the way down to San Pablo Avenue. We left the store wide open. When we came back, we found a regular customer who had closed the doors and wouldn’t let anyone in. She had seen what happened and was standing watch until we got back.”
Customer loyalty, part two: “Sometimes our customers are short a few cents and that’s okay. They always bring us the money next time. It’s not like they’re going anywhere.”
Cons: “Long days, long hours, not much money, sitting in the same place every day for years.”
Family matters: “My kids are getting an education, so they won’t have to do this job. They can be whatever they want to be. They will be something and have a good life.”