Every day, Andre Isler gets up and goes to work at the corner store that bears his family’s name on Foothill Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in East Oakland. Isler, an Oakland native, has owned the store for over 40 years, and he knows nearly all of the store’s customers, who are mostly regulars from the surrounding neighborhood. On a recent Thursday afternoon, he greeted many with a hearty ”hello or ”hey.”
“I’d be so sad if you sold the shop,” one patron told Isler, while grabbing a soda from the fridge. “Because then I won’t see you anymore.” Isler, who has no plans to sell, laughed and assured the man that the store is here to stay.
Isler’s setup is what you’d expect to see at most traditional liquor stores. Neon beer signs provided by large companies like Modelo adorn the storefront; inside, two aisles are stocked with chips, candy, some canned goods and other basic pantry items; an assortment of hard liquor lines the wall behind the cash register; cold beer is in the back, and fridges filled with sodas, juices, energy drinks, and other non-alcoholic beverages are next to the main entrance.
It had been that way for as long as Isler can remember.
But then, five months ago, the shop introduced something different—a new fridge near the front door, stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables. It wasn’t a first for Isler’s—the shop sold produce in small quantities before, about 20 years ago, but stopped because it wasn’t profitable. “We had apples, potatoes, bananas, and onions,” Isler recalled. “But it wasn’t popular in the neighborhood, so we were throwing away a lot of produce.”
This time around, at least in the early going, Isler’s produce fridge is proving to be more successful. “We’re keeping this box but we’re going to get a bigger one,” said Isler, “because we know it’s going to pick up.”
Isler’s Liquors is one of a dozen corner stores in Oakland that’s now offering fresh produce thanks to a partnership with Saba Grocers Initiative, a nonprofit that aims to make it easier for convenience store owners like Isler to sell fresh produce to residents in neighborhoods with few other options. The basic idea is this: Saba Grocers works with one wholesaler and purchases a bulk order on behalf of the stores it partners with. Each convenience store owner pays for their portion of the produce, and the organization distributes the individual orders. Saba Grocers also gives out Saba Food Cards worth $250 each, which can be used at 26 participating stores. The cards are given out to residents who are in need of assistance, based on store owners’ recommendations.
Founded by Lina Ghanem and Dhaifallah M. Dhaifallah in 2019, Saba Grocers Initiative receives funding through Oakland’s “soda tax”—a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages that was enacted in 2017 and intended to reduce sugar consumption that can lead to disease, while providing more revenue for health initiatives and cash-strapped city departments.
When Oakland voters approved the sugar-sweetened beverages tax in 2016, Ghanem, previously a public health researcher, was elated. “At the time I had been diagnosed as pre-diabetic, and I was excited about the spirit and the mission of the soda tax,” she said. But her excitement was soon replaced by disappointment over how the city was planning to spend the money.
In 2017, Mayor Libby Schaaf was criticized by several councilmembers for wanting to use some of the soda tax revenue to help close the city’s budget deficit. And when the tax revenue again became available to allocate in the 2019-2020 budget, Ghanem, who self identifies as Arab, and Dhaifallah, who is Yemeni and does public relations work for the Yemeni American Association, were individually hearing from local store owners in their networks who were concerned about how the city might use the tax money. It wasn’t long before Ghanem and Dhaifallah were being introduced to each other by Farouq AlAwdi, a mutual friend and the owner of Two Star Market on MacArthur Boulevard in the Dimond district.
“I had a relationship with [AlAwdi] and his family, and when we started thinking about the soda tax and organizing corner store owners, he thought that he should connect me and Dhaifallah,” Ghanem said. “And we’ve been working together since then.”
Ghanem and Dhaifallah began speaking with and mobilizing Oakland convenience store owners—many of whom are Arab American and Yemeni—to advocate at City Hall for the soda tax revenue to be spent on building a supply chain for healthy food products that would benefit local small stores. Ghanem, alongside a slew of convenience and liquor store owners, spoke in front of the City Council on June 18, 2019, to ask that they fund the idea.
“There was some hesitation at first because a lot of the community members felt like every time they went to City Hall, it was a bad experience,” Ghanem said.
Nonetheless, leveraging their relationships in the community, the two were soon able to get 120 store owners to sign on to a proposal—the framework for what would eventually become Saba Grocers Initiative.
“After that, we didn’t have any challenges because the community was really leaning on us for support,” said Ghanem.
The proposal was approved, and Saba Grocers received an initial allocation of $200,000 in the 2019-2020 budget year from the soda tax to distribute food cards and start the distribution network. Since Saba Grocers wasn’t yet officially a nonprofit, Ghanem and Dhaifallah partnered with Mandela Partners, a West Oakland-based organization that works to provide locally sourced food to disenfranchised communities, to assist with the food distribution for several months.
One issue that Ghanem and Dhaifallah are mindful of is the negative perception of convenience stores held by some Oaklanders, due to their focus on selling alcohol, tobacco, and other unhealthy products. Ghanem said those criticisms can often take on a racial tone, with some accusing Muslim store owners of being hypocritical. But many store owners she’s spoken to, said Ghanem, have said they’re open to the idea of changing their business practices if it’s economically viable.
“When we first started organizing for the soda tax, we went to the corner stores and I remember a lot of store owners telling me, ‘I don’t want to sell this alcohol, tobacco, or sugar.’ A lot of them don’t feel good about doing that, but they don’t have many options,” Ghanem said. “Coming from a place of judgment doesn’t make them change that, but coming up with a solution does make it change, and we have seen that change.”
For Saba Grocers, the biggest hurdle to overcome wasn’t mobilizing store owners but finding a way to distribute the right amount of product to each business, so that the food wouldn’t go to waste. “The main challenge was the existing [wholesaler] system where you can’t get the small volumes of produce that the stores need,” Ghanem explained.
To solve the problem, Dhaifallah said, they first made a business arrangement with a Yemeni owner of a grocery store in San Francisco, who is the nephew of a convenience store owner in Oakland. He would purchase a bulk order of fresh produce, then divide up the order per pound or per case, and make deliveries to each store within Saba Grocers’ network. That way, stores could receive only what they knew they would be able to sell. “That system worked perfectly fine” as an interim, Dhaifallah said, until more store owners began to join the network.
Now, Saba Grocers works directly with a wholesaler to purchase its orders, and then divides up the orders for each of the stores. “We have a bigger volume to work directly with the wholesalers, [whereas] previously we needed [the grocery] store order tacked onto our five stores to meet the minimum requirement for the wholesalers,” said Ghanem.
The system of splitting orders has worked well for Ammar Talib, owner of Jalisco Market near 98th Avenue in deep East Oakland. The market now has two fridges, fully stocked with produce, which have been a hit in the neighborhood. “We’ve had this fridge for over a year and people love it,” said Omran Talib, Ammar’s brother, and a cashier at the store.
Ammar Talib immigrated to Oakland from Yemen in 1997 and worked at his father’s convenience store before deciding to open his own, at the site of a former 99-cent store, with the intention of selling fresh produce in the neighborhood, which he said has few other options for healthy food. “We have a liquor store right at the gas station and we also have another liquor store nearby, but there was no store that had vegetables and fruits,” Talib said. “When I first got here, I was trying to have a store full of produce but we weren’t selling as much.”
Like Isler, the problem that Talib kept running into was that they weren’t able to sell nearly enough produce when they bought directly from wholesalers, and a lot of the product ended up being thrown out. “Now we can buy two small cases of produce instead of one big order,” he said, “and it’s fresher and cheaper.”
Saba Grocers offers its services to all interested convenience stores in Oakland. But Ghanem attributes much of the organization’s success to the Arab American and Yemeni communities that make up a significant portion of Oakland’s convenience store owners.
“They’re connected through the network of mosques and social circles,” Ghanem said, “and that helped us a lot in expanding.”