Corner stores step up: Temescal Produce Market

From the first dizzying days of lockdown, Temescal Produce Market has proved a reliable source of groceries and community for nearby Oaklanders.

Co-owner Ismeel Ahmed takes a break to pose at the front entrance of Temescal Market Produce. Photo: Pete Rosos
Ismael Ahmed runs Temescal Produce Market with his three brothers and their dad, and helps keep the store humming in challenging times. Photo: Pete Rosos

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. 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.

All of the salsa flavors from Casa Sanchez, the San Francisco-based Mexican foods purveyor, are good. But the Cremosa variety, a bracingly tangy orange-hued blend, is especially addictive in our house. I reliably find it at Temescal Produce Market, the cheery corner store on Telegraph Avenue, between 51st and 52nd streets. Since the lockdown started, I’ve found myself perking up at the sight of a nearly empty tub of Cremosa in the fridge, a reason to get out of the house and pick up groceries at the corner store.

Abraham Ahmed’s dad, Jamal, opened Temescal Produce Market 12 years ago, and Abraham and his three younger brothers — Ismael, Ayob, and Isaac — have all worked there over the years. The family has roots in Yemen; Jamal was born in San Francisco and the Ahmeds moved to Oakland 35 years ago.

“We’ve lived in Oakland forever,” says Abraham, 22, who worked at the store all through high school before graduating from Oakland Tech and heading off to Cal Poly, where he’s a double major in real estate finance and construction management. Now, with campus closed down, he’s back home and working the store again while remotely finishing up his senior project.

When I last lived in Oakland five years ago, Temescal Produce Market was a constant in my life, perfect for carefree, late-night Straus ice cream runs. We moved back nearby in January, and at some point during the first dizzying, confounding days of the shelter-in-place order, I remember wandering into the store one afternoon during my lunch break, unsure what to buy. Isaac Ahmed, 16, was tending the register while one of his older brothers unloaded boxes of fresh greens. I simultaneously wanted to overspend to help the store, and buy very little to leave enough for others.

We chatted about how the warehouses that supplied the store were starting to run out, and how none of us knew what was going to happen next. “It’s been hard to get supplies from the suppliers,” Abraham told me not long after. “They’re out, or they don’t want to deliver.” After lockdown went into effect, the brothers found themselves having to drive two hours to warehouses that had needed goods. “We’re just trying to keep up with demand,” said Abraham.

Temescal Produce Market has run low on the same things most small grocers have been selling a lot of lately: milk and eggs, flour and yeast, toilet paper and cleaning supplies. The family sanitizes the store every night, and has a professional cleaning crew come in once a week. “We all as a family wear gloves and masks,” said Abraham. It was hard to find proper masks at first, but then a customer donated some plastic face shields. “She saw my little brother working, asked if we had masks, and she came in later in the day and dropped off a couple.”

Isaac, 16, the youngest of the Ahmed brothers, stands behind the register with his brother Ismael. Photo: Pete Rosos
Customers line up to pay, observing social distancing protocols and wearing varying forms of protection while Isaac and Ismael Ahmed work the register in face shields. Photo: Pete Rosos

Abraham worries about his brothers working through the pandemic, but he tries to stay focused and optimistic. “We make sure to follow guidelines, and we’re just grateful that we’re still open and able to make a living,” he says. He asks customers to stay home if they’re feeling sick, to maintain social-distancing rules in the store, and, overall, “to respect each others’ boundaries.”

Temescal Produce Market has long had a relationship with nearby restaurants, and offered lines of credit to a few after the lockdown so they could continue to buy groceries. Abraham is glad the store has stayed busy through the crisis, but wonders what will happen if a proposed Whole Foods location goes through in some form as the anchor tenant of the six-story mixed-use development under construction across the street.

“I don’t know if that will be good for business,” said Abraham. “That’s a hurdle we’ll have to pass if it happens.” In the meantime, he says, “We’re here.”

Tasneem Raja is editor-in-chief of The Oaklandside. Email: tasneem@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: tasneemraja.