This report has been updated to note that Alix Wall, who wrote this piece, was one of the 680 participants in Community Foods’ direct public offering. She has not received any revenue as a result of the purchase of a single share of the business, and does not expect to be repaid, in light of the company’s closure. Nosh regrets this was not disclosed at the time this story was originally published.
This is the first of a two-part series.
There are the things he knew he would face, and the things he couldn’t have predicted.
Brahm Ahmadi knew it would be difficult to raise the money to build the first grocery store in West Oakland in 40 years. He also knew that even if he raised the funds, finding an affordable piece of property in the Bay Area’s competitive real estate market might be impossible.
What he couldn’t have predicted was that once he raised the money and found the site, that two six-figure construction issues would siphon away most of his opening budget. Or that once open, some food distributors would refuse to deliver to West Oakland because “it wasn’t on their route.” And then, of course, there was a worldwide pandemic less than a year after opening.
Ahmadi, 46, spoke to Nosh four days after Community Foods Market, which he founded, shut its doors after two and a half years in business. The closure, which the business announced on Instagram, was first reported by the SF Chronicle. I’ve known Ahmadi for well over a decade; and his wife and I have been close friends even longer. This is the only interview he has given about the company’s rise and fall.
What Ahmadi described to us is a hero’s journey story, yes, but one with a great amount of disappointment and even heartbreak, as our hero spent the better part of two decades working towards this, only to see it fail. For Brahm Ahmadi, Community Foods took over most of his adult life.
“Failure is an interesting thing,” Ahmadi said. “Most people who are successful have a lot of failure behind them, and therefore people don’t look at it like they used to. It will take me quite a while to heal and recover. I’m burned out like I’ve never been, and I need to be with my family and get myself right. If I had another way to bridge this last crisis, I would have figured it out, but I couldn’t find it.”
An early interest in environmental justice
The story behind the photos
El Cerrito-based documentarian Yoav Potash, whose photos accompany this two-part story, has been following Brahm Ahmadi for years, working on a documentary tentatively entitled “The Store.”
“As such, I got a very up-close-and-personal look at the emotional and psychological weight that he’s been carrying all these years,” Potash said.
“Everyone knew this was an uphill battle and there were a lot of people saying it can’t be done and it won’t work. The fact that he was hearing all that, and said, ‘I think I’m going to be able to find the way that involves the community in a different way that corporations can’t or won’t do, for example, made me feel that this is a good story in and of itself, both of a person and of a community. It also has implications outside of this one community, as there are food deserts all across America with similar circumstances, and therefore a lot of people are watching this project.”
As an immigrant growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Southern California, Ahmadi had first-hand experience with limited access to fresh food. Born in Iran to a Persian father and American mother, Ahmadi came to the U.S. at age 6, with his mother and two younger siblings. They all moved in with his grandparents, who lived on a farm in Iowa, while his father stayed in Iran in an effort to retain the family’s assets before the revolution.
His father wasn’t successful in those efforts; he immigrated to the U.S. a year later, and the family settled in a low-income neighborhood in the Orange County city of La Habra, just east of Los Angeles. It couldn’t have been further from what many think of when they think of the Persian immigrant community in L.A.
Ahmadi’s interest in environmental justice was piqued at an early age, he said, after witnessing first-hand how toxic waste was often dumped in poor neighborhoods, and also how his predominantly Latinx neighborhood lacked a grocery store.
After graduating from UC Santa Cruz, he worked at Urban Habitat Camp, a summer camp for urban youth. Many of the staffers there came from West Oakland, and inspired him to move to the Bay Area. Many of the people he met there are still among his closest friends, he said.
Interested in issues of racial inequities, Ahmadi was deeply influenced by the work of then-Oakland activist (now CNN commentator) Van Jones. “Van Jones was beginning to say that we have to think beyond activism and organizing, as important as that is,” said Ahmadi. “If we want to build a new world, it’s not just fighting policy and bad actors, it’s actually starting to build new structures and systems.”
Ahmadi saw urban agriculture and food access as another entry point, especially given Oakland’s wave of urban farms. He and some activist partners, like Malaika Edwards, began organizing around food access and started a garden at an unmaintained site on 55th Street in North Oakland.
“That neighborhood was predominantly Black then, and with the input of the residents there, we started to talk about what could we do next,” said Ahmadi, bringing the discussion to living rooms and church halls.
“We were talking about these broad themes of land use and decision-making and power,” he recalled. “The fact that there was no access to grocery stores … many of these people don’t have cars. They were telling us ‘we have to rely on these low-quality corner stores for food.’ There were no well-established organizations doing anything about it, so right away, what came up was a grocery store.”
Dreamer that he was, Ahmadi was also a pragmatist. He knew he couldn’t go from zero to market founder without an entrepreneurial background. “I didn’t know anything at that point; I was 25,” he acknowledged.
With the help of a donor, he went to some industry conferences and trade shows and hired a consultant to do a feasibility study. They learned that without a reliable method of transportation, getting to a market with fresh produce is often too difficult to bother with for many customers. When people travel there by bus, they stock up on the shelf-stable items, not fresh food.
The first obvious step was a mobile market, a van that would drive fresh produce around underserved parts of West Oakland. That van, called People’s Grocery, was established as a nonprofit in 2002. It was named after a Black-owned market opened in 1889 in Memphis, the owners of which were eventually lynched while in police custody. With grants funding the mobile operation, they were able to hire 13 area residents, teens in programs at the West Oakland YMCA who worked in all aspects of the business.
Eventually, People’s Grocery leased land to farm much of the produce they sold and launched a “Grub Box,” with lower barriers to entry than traditional community-supported agriculture boxes. They taught nutrition classes, and taught gardening skills to elementary school kids in low-income neighborhoods.
I remember being at a fundraiser for People’s Grocery at the Doubletree Hilton Hotel at the Berkeley Marina in the mid-aughts, where a teenager told a room of several hundred people how she learned how to peel, cut and cook with a butternut squash — a totally foreign vegetable to her before that — through a People’s Grocery cooking class.
“But the idea of a grocery store was always the true north,” Ahmadi said. “Everything we did confirmed it even more so. As much as folks appreciated what we were doing, everyone recognized the small scale of the work relative to the size of West Oakland and the size of the population. With over 25,000 people, over 70% of their grocery needs were not being met locally.” He grew his network, established partnerships and gained inroads with potential funders. He even went back to school, earning an MBA in sustainability from San Francisco’s Presidio Graduate School. An MBA, he thought, would give him the credibility he needed to get a full grocery store off the ground.
In 2010, he went to the People’s Grocery board and said he believed it was time to start the work in earnest for a grocery store, and together, they agreed that a store would be run separately from the nonprofit, as a for-profit venture.
Finding a home for Community Foods
The fundraising world is “fickle and trend-oriented,” Ahmadi said. When approaching potential investors, he was told, again and again, that he was a bad risk without a proven track record. Others told him that “if it could have been done, it would have been done” as a reason a West Oakland grocery store wouldn’t work.
Ahmadi knew from the outset that whomever invested would have to be mission-driven; that sales alone would not sustain such an enterprise. When his lawyer broached the idea of the direct public offering (DPO) in which he would sell shares of the business directly to small investors, it seemed to make sense. (It also made the New York Times.)
Ahmadi says that 680 households became founding shareholders through a direct public offering for Community Foods between 2012 and 2016, raising over $2 million. (As disclosed above, my household was one of those 680; I purchased a single share.) Equally important to Ahmadi was that the response made a strong statement; it proved that there were Bay Area folk who cared enough about food access in their own community to invest $1,000, the minimum amount to participate. Those with much greater capacity took notice and also bought in; and that money then helped him leverage much more.
But even after the fundraising hurdles were overcome, there was the work of finding a place to build the business. He had hoped to find a building that could be repurposed, offering significant savings when it came to construction costs; that didn’t happen. Then they went through nine sites, ruling out each one for a whole host of reasons. Along the way, they were “spending tens of thousands on each site,” he said, between brokers, attorney’s fees and non-refundable deposits. Again and again they’d discover reasons they couldn’t build in a location. The search become so dire that that Ahmadi started to wonder if he should just return all the money to the shareholders.
3105 San Pablo Ave., the site they purchased in 2016, was chosen out of desperation, Ahmadi said. The location was too Northwest, Ahmadi thought, but he felt he had no choice.
Then came the issues with that site. When they broke ground for Community Foods in 2017, they discovered an underground fuel tank that had gone undetected in the site’s first inspection. Used in Oakland’s old trolley system, it had to be removed, and the necessary soil remediation cost over six figures. Then, the permitting process required by the city included a number of improvements to the surrounding area, like the sidewalks and medians, another unanticipated six-figure burden.
“What we experienced before opening exemplified what the barriers are for this type of project, and we encountered every single one of them,” Ahmadi said. “From financing to real estate to permitting to construction, all of these things are what prevents grocery stores from opening in these neighborhoods. It’s not worth it to most investors because what kind of profit will you make?”
Ahmadi’s story continues Monday on Nosh as Community Foods opens, eight months before the pandemic and with little left in its coffers.