Corner stores step up: Berkeley Organic Market and Deli

In the age of COVID-19, convenience stores and specialty markets have come into their own. Our new series pays tribute to just a few of them — and we want to hear from you about your favorites.

Thank goodness for corner stores. In the age of COVID-19, convenience stores and specialty markets have come into their own. Along with providing basic provisions (and then some), these independently owned businesses are often a hub for their communities — a place to pick up groceries, household goods and the latest neighborhood news. Nosh is paying tribute to a few of them over the next few weeks. We fully acknowledge this is just a tiny sample — so please leave a comment telling us about your favorite neighborhood store and how it’s rising to the challenge of serving its community during a public health crisis.

Before the pandemic, business was so slow at Berkeley Organic Market and Deli that owner Abdul Waheed Alsaidi put the Elmwood natural food store up for sale. Now, Alsaidi can’t keep his shelves stocked fast enough.

Shortly after the shelter-in-place order went into effect, Alsaidi’s wholesaler stopped coming and told him to look elsewhere for inventory. “Everything is short for the time being and sometimes you don’t know what to do when a family comes in with three kids and they need eggs and you don’t have it. Imagine. It’s heartbreaking.”

Now, Alsaidi shops from retail stores to get customers the things they need. “I buy from retail stores because [my customers] cannot leave the Elmwood because of the [shelter-in-place] order. So I have to bring them the food.” As essential items are hard to come by everywhere, he limits sales on products like flour, butter, milk, toilet paper and cleaning supplies.

The well-stocked produce section of Berkeley Organic Market and Deli. Photo: Pete Rosos

Keeping the store stocked is only part of the challenge; keeping it safe is another. Alsaidi runs the market with his twin sons. They open at 8 a.m. for senior shoppers (10 a.m. for everyone else), and after the store closes at 7 p.m., they spend hours cleaning and restocking the shelves for the next day.

Alsaidi has set up a station outside the store, offering hand sanitizer, water and latex gloves. Customers who are especially vulnerable right now ask Alsaidi for curbside pickup or for him to deliver groceries to their doorstep, which he’s happy to do.

The Berkeley Market and Deli entrance complete with water, hand sanitizer and gloves. Photo: Pete Rosos
Alsaidi places a bag of groceries into the trunk of a customer’s car, who requested curbside pickup. Photo: Pete Rosos

A car buff, Alsaidi works a second job at a service station in Oakland (he worked at the Chevron in Elmwood for 10 years before that). He’s only owned the market for a year, but he comes from a family of Yemeni produce merchants, and his first job upon moving to the United States was at a small market in Oakland.

Alsaidi says his upbringing growing up in a small village — where everyone grew their own food, harvested, dried and stored it for lean times — prepared him “to account for the worst.” But he says he couldn’t foresee the situation we’re in today.

“We have a big hope it’s going to get better and we’re going to find merchandise and find business. It’s very, very hard. Even before, we were struggling to keep the door open.”

Alsaidi and son Ahmed wear masks to keep customers safe. Photo: Pete Rosos

At various points during our interview, Alsaidi hands the phone over to customers who are eager to offer praise of the market and the man behind it. Former Berkeley City Councilman Gordon Wozniak says he doesn’t live in the immediate neighborhood, but he makes a point to stop in once a week to buy specialty items and say hello to Alsaidi. And Rockridge resident Allen Flemming chimes in that Berkeley Organic has been his go-to ever since Alsaidi helped him choose healthy foods while he was recovering from brain cancer. It’s apparent from talking to them that Alsaidi is as big a draw as the store itself. (This reporter will be forever grateful to Alsaidi for helping her out when she unwittingly parked in the tow-away zone in front of his store).

Alsaidi says it’s the community that has kept him going, and he hopes his new customers will continue to support him after the disaster ends.

“We are the invisible soldiers. We are suffering. Without the support, the help of the residents and customers around, we wouldn’t be here, period.”

Sarah Han is Nosh editor at Berkeleyside. Email: sarah@berkeleyside.com.