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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.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series; the first part was published on Feb. 24.
Despite all of the hurdles, Community Foods Market opened on June 1, 2019, with a euphoric celebration outside. The market had features common to most full-scale grocery stores, like a butcher counter and café. There was a “Wall of Value,” and organic products, all on offer after extensive neighborhood feedback. It was staffed primarily by people from the neighborhood.
“The market was, in a certain way, a validation that we are here, that we matter somewhat, as having a market in your neighborhood is somewhat normal,” said David Peters, president of the board of the West Oakland Cultural Action Network, and the founder of The Black Liberation Walking Tour. Peters has served on the market’s board since 2019.
A lifelong resident of West Oakland, Peters remembers a time when a full-scale market was in operation in West Oakland, so he was elated to have one there again.
It’s true, there were troubles leading up to, and then on, day one, including staffing challenges. A malfunctioning Point of Sale system on opening day caused long lines. But after the rocky start — common for any business, big or small — things seemed to be going in a positive direction.
Community Foods founder Brahm Ahmadi was feeling optimistic as over the course of several months, the average amount spent per transaction and basket size began to increase. People from outside the neighborhood were shopping there to support its mission.
There were enough, in fact, that their bread vendor was proven wrong. The company wouldn’t deliver to Community Foods for the first six weeks it was open. The reason they gave: The market wasn’t on its pre-existing route. The bread vendor was skeptical that the market’s customer base would buy enough to make the stop worthwhile. “I had to beg,” Ahmadi said.
“People liked that we were independent, and we had gotten a fair amount of attention,” Ahmadi said, with some influenced by the Occupy movement. Many shoppers wanted to shift their spending away from corporate chains and in support of independent entities like Community Foods and the Mandela Grocery Cooperative.
The coronavirus crisis begins
When the pandemic first struck, the market thrived as people stocked up for who knew how long. But it was short-lived.
The supply chain issues that emptied shelves at big corporate stores hit Community Foods even harder.
“We were a new player, and there’s a lot of favoritism in the grocery business,” Ahmadi said.
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.”
New, independent grocers are at a disadvantage from the start, Ahmadi explained, because they can’t guarantee sales anywhere near those at the larger chains.
“When the supply gets really limited, the suppliers prefer to work with their bigger buyers, as it’s a volume-driven business,” he said. “We were in the bottom tier of allocation.”
While in the beginning, he had to beg the bread vendor to deliver, now there were many more vendors saying the market hadn’t proven itself, and reserving their limited product for more established brands.
Shoppers unable to get what they wanted went elsewhere, as making more than one grocery trip became too stressful for many.
Then, by summer 2020, many people’s buying habits had shifted online. Funders he was hoping would come through for him shifted their priorities, too, something Ahmadi said he can’t fault them for. The pandemic forced a lot of that kind of reckoning.
Ahmadi had harbored high hopes that “we could showcase the new market to get new funders who would see its potential to be an anchor in the neighborhood.” However, “the pandemic led prospective funders to stop visiting and engaging with us.”
In addition, historically and systemically marginalized communities like West Oakland were hit hardest by the layoffs and cutbacks that came with the pandemic. With many customers’ purchasing power diminished, sales shrank. People who might have spent a little extra on food at other times were worried about the rent, and even people with steady sources of income cut back due to uncertainty about the future.
Community Foods was part of California’s EBT program, which meant they were kept afloat for a time by sales to folks collecting CalFresh and other benefits. The final nail in the coffin was inflation. Everyone noticed that the pandemic forced prices to rise. But big chain shoppers felt the pinch far less, Ahmadi said.
A struggle for backers
“The big stores have the financial reserves to absorb inflation and reduce their margins so they can shoulder it, but we had zero reserves to do that,” he said. A “Save our Store” campaign was launched in April 2021, as the store put word out that without sustained community support, it would close. Despite the media coverage, the financial backing that could have prevented its closure didn’t come.
The calls for more people to shop there went unheeded, Ahmadi said, something he ascribed to a lack of connection with people outside the grocery store’s neighborhood.
“Ultimately, folks with privilege aren’t really connected to West Oakland and aren’t really willing or able to make the kind of effort needed to advance a cause like Community Foods Market in a BIPOC community,” Ahmadi said. According to Ahmadi, if he had done more outreach early on, those shoppers might have made an effort to spend their money at Community Foods.
“If I had to do it over again, I would make sure I have a substantial marketing budget,” Ahmadi said. “As a new retailer, you have to get on the map pretty quickly, especially if you’re in a disenfranchised community. My main regret is that there was a lot of pressure to open the store after construction was finished, but in retrospect, I should have held off and kept trying to raise more capital.”
Ahmadi saw the writing on the wall for quite some time, but the business hung in until this month. He sent an email announcing Community Foods’ permanent closure on the morning of Feb. 10. All its remaining stock was marked down by 50%, and the store closed three days later.
“Like so many small businesses across the country, the economic pressures of the pandemic have become too much for our small and young business to bear…” the closing announcement read. “We are proud of the fact that 90% of our employees are BIPOC, as well as 70% of our customers. We know we have made a difference in the lives of many local residents and, as we prepare to shut our doors, are grateful for the opportunity.”
Picking up the pieces
To say that Ahmadi is devastated and disillusioned is an understatement. There is the personal level, sure, and no one knows of his sacrifice more than his wife, Leah Katz Ahmadi, and their two sons, ages 9 and 5. (Katz Ahmadi and I have been close friends for nearly 20 years.) The couple started dating in 2005 and married in 2009, and the store was always a part of their relationship in some way. Calling it “our third baby,” they planned the timing of their children around it, she said.
Ahmadi admits the family often took a backseat to the store, and described his wife’s efforts to keep the household together, while also working at a full-time job in development in at UC Berkeley’s college of engineering as “heroic.”
“In the last three and a half years, I’ve just been pedal to the metal, with unrelenting insane pressure and long hours,” Ahmadi said. “Even when I’m home, my phone was always blowing up and then there were all of these different periods of emotional stress, trying to put something together to save us. It really affected my ability to be present for my family, and that’s not been fair to Leah or the kids. It’s been really hard on them.”
Katz Ahmadi has, essentially, functioned as not only a thought partner since the beginning but a solo parent for much of the pandemic and, really, ever since the store opened. As hard as it got, especially when grocery stores were deemed one of the most dangerous places to be during the pandemic, “there was never a question as to whether we were doing this or not,” she said.
“He’s always had my support and our families’ support and our kids understood to the extent they can at this developmental stage that this wasn’t just a normal job, this was more than that.”
Plus, she added, “Yes, even when he was home he was always thinking about the store. Obviously, there were sacrifices made. But I can’t imagine us as a couple doing it any other way. Maybe if we ever did it again, we’d do it differently, but this was totally unknown territory. You don’t know what you’re getting into until you’re in it.”
Ahmadi’s frustration over how things ended is clear. “We just weren’t supported by the people and institutions that really could have made all the difference,” he said. “This is the perpetuation of disinvestment, when you have people who clearly have the capital, choosing not to support something as essential as a full grocery store in a disenfranchised neighborhood that hasn’t had one in 40 years. To choose not to get behind that, it’s pure structural inequality.”
At a time when issues of inequality were placed front and center like never before, in light of the murder of George Floyd, Ahmadi is especially frustrated that folks with privilege supported the store in theory, or by becoming shareholders, but didn’t shop there themselves, which would have helped kept the doors open.
Or, as filmmaker Yoav Potash, who followed Ahmadi’s journey for years, put it: “I don’t think the store failed, I think the systems that were supposed to support the store failed.”
Community Foods’ legacy
One thing that weighs heavily upon Ahmadi is that food justice advocates in other communities around the country were closely following his efforts.
“How this goes down in history and why we failed and where the blame gets put will be important; other endeavors will be affected by it,” he said.
“Will people acknowledge it was primarily bad timing, that we opened and got hammered by a pandemic and didn’t have the resources to ride it out, or will they continue to look at these neighborhoods as too risky to invest in? There’s a reason there aren’t stores here.”
“There are a lot of haters who are total skeptics and are looking for more evidence,” Ahmadi said. “We could easily become the evidence for that particular narrative.” But those close to the business know that there were too many factors at play for that “West Oakland is too risky” narrative to make sense.
“I call him the miracle maker,” said Ally DeArman about Ahmadi. She’s been a Community Foods board member since early 2019, after meeting him through her work on Oakland’s Eat Real Festival.
“Almost any time we had an emergency board meeting, he’d be updating us that he found another $100,000 through another generous donor, or a community foundation or some kind of public initiative,” she said. “There are not a lot of places that will give $100,000 to a for-profit entity. He was the only one who could make a grocery store like this happen at all.”
“Brahm’s a force of nature,” seconded Peters, the West Oakland activist. “I can’t imagine anyone else sticking through this for that long, and with so many rejections. Getting it built at all was an amazing testament of courage, fortitude and drive.”
The future of 3105 San Pablo Ave.
As for what happens next, there’s the empty store on San Pablo Avenue, and there’s the question of what Ahmadi himself will do.
Peters is hopeful that the community will be able to keep the property out of the hands of developers; and that nonprofits in the food access space can at least use the kitchen for the short term. Perhaps, he said, some kind of store can function there again. In the short term, the lien holder that now owns the property has agreed to allow its parking lot to be used for pop-up events.
“People are always looking for reasons not to invest in neighborhoods like these, but that building is there and it was built, so the neighborhood is forever changed by Brahm’s efforts,” said Peters.
While Ahmadi says he is grateful that failure is judged in a different way than before, he has no idea what’s in store for him personally. He has already fielded a few job offers, but for now, he is looking forward to being present for his family in a way that he hasn’t been thus far.
“I’m so overwhelmed and exhausted and have no mental energy to begin to imagine what’s next for me,” he said. “I need time to heal. I have a lot of intersecting areas of interest, but this was kind of traumatizing.”
“On the one hand, I learned a lot and have a lot to offer, and believe that I should put that out there for others to benefit from,” he said. “On the other, I don’t know what that means yet.”
Ahmadi was the one who started this venture, alone. Of course, he got others — many others — to join him along the way with his conviction and drive, his powers of persuasion and his passion, and the argument that, of course, residents of disenfranchised neighborhoods need access to healthy food to thrive, it should be a fundamental human right. Through Community Foods’ direct public offering, he made people — many of whom might never have thought much about food access — care about it enough to invest their own money in the cause, too.
We live in one of the most food-obsessed places on the planet, where some will think nothing of dropping several hundred dollars for a tasting menu, or seeking out heirloom varieties of organic produce at the farmers market or drive miles out of their way for the latest food trend. Ahmadi and his laser-focused persistence forced many of us to reckon with the reality of the lack of food access for so many in our own backyards.
“I gave it every last bit of juice I had until the end,” Ahmadi said.
On Sunday, Feb. 13, the market’s closing day, Ahmadi was the only cashier for the last four hours. His father and older son were there too, both for moral support and to bag each customer’s groceries. Then he turned out the lights, and locked the door.
This is the second of a two-part series; the first part was published on Feb. 24.