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There aren’t actually many Korean residents or businesses in Oakland’s Koreatown Northgate neighborhood. A few stand out, including Korean Community Christian Church, Koreana Plaza Market, and the restaurants Blind Tiger, Gogi time, and Dan Sung Sa. Originally called Northgate, KONO, as it’s known for short, got its current name in 2008 when a majority of property owners in the area voted to become one of Oakland’s formal business improvement districts. The force behind turning the area into a Koreatown was Alex Hahn, a Korean-American real estate investor.
The district is really more of a multicultural mix of businesses. There’s the Yemeni-owned Bee Healthy Honey shop, the Afghan-owned Marwa Market that has been in business for decades, and Sankofa Arts & Jewelry store, which sells African accessories and body products. Braids by Betty, a black owned braid shop, and Oakland Burmese Mission Baptist Church are also neighborhood fixtures. In recent years, there’s been an influx of white-owned businesses such as Commonwealth and Econo Jam Records.
“This community has always been wanting to recognize the diversity and celebrate it,” Shari Godinez, executive director of the KONO District, told The Oaklandside.
Godinez said, however, that it’s been a rough year for KONO shops. The organization’s street ambassadors regularly go out into the neighborhood to speak with business owners and assess their needs. According to their findings, the organization has identified about 12 businesses that have permanently closed during the pandemic, including the historic Stork Club bar, Phat Matt’s BBQ, and the distiller Oakland Spirits Company, which Godinez said is on the verge of closing.
The district is suffering in a big way from the loss of First Fridays, the popular outdoor monthly market that brought thousands of visitors to the neighborhood. The last in-person First Fridays event was held Mar. 6th, 2020. Godinez said they are currently trying to figure out how to safely hold First Fridays in-person, though nothing has been planned.
Despite everything, most businesses have managed to stay afloat, reopening when the county has allowed it, and often helping their neighbors.
The best medicine is food you can eat
Khalil Almaghafi, owner of Bee Healthy Honey Shop on Telegraph Avenue, adores bees. His fascination with the yellow striped insect started when he was a child in Yemen, where he learned the profession of beekeeping from his father. Almaghafi inherited a bee removal service from his former boss in the early 2000s, and opened the shop soon after. He cultivates several beehives, and utilizes the bees for pollination services and selling bee products such as candles, soap and honey.
“I believe I was the first bee shop in the area, and people are always looking for these kinds of goods,” Almaghafi said. “We want to teach the people in Oakland that there is a need for bees and honey.”
Over the years, Almaghafi built a loyal customer base through walk-in visitors and referrals. Now that foot traffic in the area has slowed, he is relying on his bee removal services—plus sales through his website and farmers market appearances—to keep the business going. “I’m not going to get rich, but at least I can be my own boss doing what I’m doing.”
His honey jars have been his number one selling item because, according to Almaghafi, people are looking for natural ways to bolster their immune system during the pandemic. “Honey and other bee products are the key to all that,” he said, “the best medicine is the food you eat.”
Commonwealth serves as a space for vendors without a space of their own
Josh Rosenberg, the current owner of Commonwealth Cafe and Public House on Telegraph Avenue, said his favorite part of KONO is the mix of multicultural businesses that are in the neighborhood. “It’s still got a great local community and local vibe,” Rosenberg said. “It hasn’t been washed over by a lot of the changes that Oakland has faced over the years.”
Founded in 2010, Rosenberg took over Commonwealth in 2016 with another business partner. One of the challenges has been contending with the low amount of foot traffic the neighborhood receives, particularly where they’re located on Telegraph. “It is kind of this—I wouldn’t say it’s a no man’s land—but it’s definitely a bit quieter,” Rosenberg said.
Commonwealth’s sales have been up and down since they reopened last May, and have had to cut staffing in order to minimize costs. One way Rosenberg has pivoted is by selling coffee, which he says has helped bring in a lot of revenue. The decision to sell coffee came after Black Spring Coffee, their next door neighbor, closed last April. “We took it upon ourselves to bring that cafe energy and provide the neighborhood with coffee,” he said. “We had a takeout window for everything—beer, wine, cider, food, coffee— and we noticed coffee sales have really been helping us keep this place afloat.”
In addition to their normal services, commonwealth has partnered with vendors who have no physical storefront of their own—such as Mother Tongue Coffee and Evolution Hot Sauce— and allowed them to set up shop. “Commonwealth has always tried to support the local community as much as possible,” he said, “and give them the opportunity to use our pub as their storefront.”
A new business makes fast friends
Universe Walker, co-owner of Knuckleheads and Harlots Barbershop & Parlour, started the barber shop with Frank De Santiago and Talon Demeo this past September. Walker and De Santiago have been cutting hair at their respective shops—Walker co-owns Scarlet Salon in Berkeley while De Santiago runs Frank De Barber Shop in San Jose—but wanted to start a business that could show off their punk rock roots.
KONO seemed like the perfect location because “we looked at a couple commercial spaces but we found that there’s no barber shops here,” Walker said. The district has a slew of hair and beauty salons, but the only other barber shop is the Peoples Barber & Shop on Broadway.
Neighboring business owners came out to greet them for their grand opening. Knuckleheads decided to partner with Commonwealth to offer a joint deal— $5 off a haircut when you buy a beer at Commonwealth, or $5 off a pint when you get a haircut from a Knuckleheads barber.
Walker, De Santiago, and Demeo have also made friends with the owner of The Shaver and Cutlery Shop on Telegraph, who connects them with potential clients and barbers. “We’re helping support other businesses to get through these rough times.”
One of the biggest hurdles for Knuckleheads & Harlots has been operating as a brand new business. The trio renovated the entire storefront and built out the barber stations six feet apart to account to follow COVID-19 safety protocols. What they didn’t foresee was how hard it would be to find funding.
“We opened during the pandemic so we had no profit from previous tax years, which made us ineligible for any [state and federal] financial help,” Walker said. According to guidelines for Paycheck Protection Program Loans published last April, eligible businesses must have been in operation before February 2020; Knuckleheads and Harlots opened last September.
December was a particularly hard month for the trio, as California reinstituted its strictest shelter in place order, effectively closing all barber shops until late January. “We barely survived but we did,” Walker said, “and we just want the word spread that we’re here and ready to take care of your hair needs.”