Corner stores step up: Star Grocery

Our series on corner stores in the age of COVID-19 turns to Star Grocery, a Claremont neighborhood market that has been feeding Berkeley for 98 years.

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 couple of 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.

The first weekend after Berkeley ordered residents to shelter in place, the aisles of Star Grocery were jammed with customers stocking up on food.

“We had people lined up 20 deep and they were pretending to have space between them,” said Nick Pappas, whose family founded the store in 1922. He estimates the grocery did three times the business it does normally.

Star Grocery owner Nick Pappas. Photo: Pete Rosos

Every morning there is a line to get inside, well before Star’s (new, COVID-19 related) 9 a.m. opening. But now the store only allows 10 people inside at a time. A masked employee stands sentinel at the front door to make sure customers obey the rules.

“This keeps us safer but it also keeps us saner,” said Pappas. Business has calmed down a bit; now Star is only doing one and a half to two times its normal business, he said.

A customer shopping the aisles at Star Grocery. Photo: Pete Rosos

For 98 years, Star Grocery has been feeding Berkeley residents. Customers appear more devoted than ever to the upscale market with its wide selection of organic fruits and vegetables, humanely-raised meat, artisanal cheeses, locally-produced jams, granolas, desserts and coffee, and a well-stocked wine, craft beer and liquor department (Its highly-renowned sandwiches are currently on hold).

A sign letting shoppers know that Star Meats, the grocery’s butcher counter, has stopped making its well-loved sandwiches. Photo: Pete Rosos
Star Grocery’s workers Marcus and Jason. Scores of Berkeley teens have had their first jobs ringing up groceries. Photo: Pete Rosos

“Nick takes great care in finding great products,” said Diana Yonkouski, who has been shopping at Star for 30 years and whose real estate company, Bay Area Properties, is just a few doors away. “There are little notes they put up on different things, ‘Just got this back in,’ or ‘So and so made it, and it’s from Oregon.’ Nick personalizes the products as well.”

The store is one of the oldest groceries in Berkeley. Nick and Jim Pappas, two brothers who came from Greece, opened the store in 1922 and moved it to its current location in 1942. “They originally hand delivered groceries in wicker baskets, which, as the business flourished, were replaced by a fleet of delivery trucks,” reads a Berkeley Historical Plaque affixed to Star’s exterior. “During the Depression, the Pappas brothers generously extended credit, writing off thousands in unpaid bills.” (Customers can still sign for groceries and get a bill at the end of the month). The neon marquee with its bright star was added during a 1949 expansion.

The Pappas Family celebrating the 1949 store remodel. Photo Mar Hooper/Berkeley Historical Plaque Project

Jim’s son, Nick, took over management in 1974. He told Berkeleyside that no other family members are working at the store, but scores of Berkeley teenagers and young adults have had their first jobs ringing up groceries.

Keeping the store stocked with some essentials has been difficult since the shelter-in-place order went into effect, Pappas said. Sometimes orders were canceled or never showed up. Pappas stopped going to Costco to pick up essentials for safety reasons. That has meant some shelves are empty, particularly of basics such as flour, sugar, soup, mayonnaise and paper goods. When those items come in, they are quickly bought up. But Star Grocery still gets its twice-weekly delivery of greens from Full Belly Farm and Veritable Vegetable.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.