In 1969, when his older brother Art was called up to the U.S. Army reserves during the Vietnam War, a 15-year-old Kirk Watkins stepped in to fill his brother’s place at The Food Mill, a natural foods store near their Oakland home,
“I made two dollars an hour,” he said. “It was a big deal for a high school kid.”
It’s the only job he’s ever had.
The Food Mill is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year; Kirk Watkins, now 70 and semi-retired, is the store’s second owner in all that time. And it’s a family affair. Kirk’s wife Cindy is the office manager. Kirk and Cindy’s son Dan is the current manager, and his wife Breanna is Cindy’s assistant.
It was Art Watkins who first started working there, after going up and down MacArthur Avenue, near his home in the Upper Dimond district, knocking door to door in search of a job. His first task was to rinse out dirty jars.
The Food Mill: Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 3033 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland; thefoodmill.com
Kirk Watkins’s first love was woodworking. But after graduating high school in 1971, he said, construction jobs were too intermittent for him to try it as a career.
“I never thought, ‘this was it,’” Watkins said. “I got married after being here only five years. I didn’t know what the future would bring. You just did what you did. I got married at 21, that’s what everybody did then.”
Watkins moved up the ladder from clerk to manager, the position held when John Denis, the original owner, died unexpectedly in 1991.
Since Denis had no will, and his surviving relatives had no interest in the store, it took two years and many court appearances for Watkins and his brother to officially become its owners, which happened in 1993.
(Left) Kirk Watkins at the Food Mill in the 1990s, when he bought the store after working as a cashier for two decades. Credit: The Food Mill (Right) Kirk with his son, Dan Watkins, who runs the store now. Credit: Tovin Lapan
Watkins and his son Dan, 40, who now runs the store, sat for an interview in the store’s upstairs office, where today, antiquated cash registers and scales from the original store sit like museum pieces on a shelf.
Denis and his father originally opened The Food Mill in 1933 as a grain mill across the street from its current location. Two years later, it moved to where it stands now on MacArthur Boulevard near the corner of Maple Avenue. In its early days, it was known as much for its freshly milled flour as it was for its bread and cookie bars made from the flour and more wholesome-than-usual ingredients.
While they stopped baking bread when faced with stiff competition from the growing number of artisanal bakers in the area, they still make five flavors of cookie bars, like peanut butter chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and super ginger. They adhere closely to the original recipe and remain big sellers; with a more wholesome taste than many cookies. Kirk’s first job there was packaging the cookie bars.
They also grind their own nut butters and sell them at numerous natural grocery stores around the Bay Area. Their bulk section features somewhere between 1000 and 1200 herbs, spices, beans, grains and granolas.
They stopped milling when the machines started to break down with age, occasionally generating sparks that lit the grains on fire. Dan Watkins said they decided it would be too expensive to replace the machines.
The bakery upstairs has found a new life though. In addition to the cookie bars, Grand Bakery bakes its kosher challah, macaroons and other goods there. Pizza Matador, a pizza delivery company, is another tenant. They also have a massage therapist with an office upstairs, and an apartment they rent out.
Over the years, Denis made many improvements and additions to the store, like adding an addition in the back, where the bulk section is, and replacing its original wooden bulk bins with metal shelving.
The Food Mill is known for its extensive bulk foods section. Credit: Tovin Lapan
While there are refrigerated staples and a small produce section, the arrival of Farmer Joe’s only a few blocks away pushes the Watkins to concentrate on its bulk offerings and supplements — what they’ve always been most known for — rather than organic produce.
The Watkins have seen so many trends ebb and flow; right now, Irish Sea Moss is what they can’t keep in stock; the superfood is considered a good, natural source of minerals. When Dan was a kid, he remembers, carrot juice was the big thing; Cindy would make vast quantities in their industrial juicer.
While neither Watkins spends any time on TikTok, they know when something is big there.
“It used to be Dr. Oz,” Dan said, referring to the celebrity physician who was a regular on Oprah. “When you can’t order something, and then it blows off the shelf when you finally get it, you know it’s TikTok.”
Dan practically grew up in the store.
“My brother and I would jump on the pallets of flour on the second floor and probably piss people off,” he recalled.
Much like his father, Dan started thinking about joining the family business while he was in high school. He has two young children now, too young to think about whether they’ll take over someday.
Meanwhile, Kirk Watkins tried retiring five years ago, but couldn’t stay away. He still works twice a week at the store.
“The customers like seeing me,” he said.
Though the Covid pandemic was a difficult time in many ways, it proved a boon for The Food Mill; “We had lines going down the street,” Kirk recalled, as they only allowed five people in at a time.
Given how much baking became a Covid pastime as well as other kitchen projects with everyone stuck at home, “our bulk section was going 100 miles an hour,” Dan said.
Bulk sections in other groceries were shut down, Kirk said.
“I think because of the way we controlled our environment, and made people wear gloves, they never shut us down,” he added.
Calling themselves “Oakland’s best kept secret,” both father and son said they felt they were still in business because, even though it’s possible to find cheaper prices elsewhere, “we try to help our customers as much as we can,” Dan said.
“You’ll get a good deal at Walmart, but you won’t get a face-to-face conversation with someone.”
While in the past they had three nutritionists on staff to discuss supplements and answer other questions, now they’ve cut back to one. Still, it’s one more than many other stores have.
“All we can do is hope for our loyal customers to continue supporting us,” Kirk said. “Because without them, we’re toast.”