The number of customers shopping at Community Foods Market has declined sharply since the start of the pandemic. (Community Foods Market)
Even as the COVID-19 crisis has touched every conceivable corner of society this past year, at least the grocery stores have done okay. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway: Every in-store shopper has experienced the long lines, has seen the shelves depleted of all-purpose flour and every last scrap of toilet paper.
West Oakland’s Community Foods Market saw the same boom in sales as every other supermarket in the early days of the first shelter-in-place order, as customers rushed to stock up on essential goods. But that initial boost proved to be short-lived, says Brahm Ahmadi, the store’s founder and CEO. By summertime, as low-income West Oakland residents were hit especially hard by the COVID-spurred economic downturn, both sales and customer traffic had plummeted.
Now, Community Foods Market is in danger of closing altogether, Ahmadi says. To help prevent that, the company launched a “Save Our Store” campaign today, asking customers and supporters to sign up to become “boosters” who commit to shopping at the store, or ordering online, at least once a month—and to recruit at least five other people to do the same.
Otherwise, Ahmadi says, without that significant infusion of cash, the store may be forced to close its doors altogether.
If that were to happen, it would be a big loss for West Oakland. The neighborhood has long been one of the Bay Area’s most notorious fresh food deserts— a community of 25,000 people that endured decades without a full-service grocery store. The Community Foods Market project was more than 15 years in the making: When the market finally opened in June of 2019, it became only the second grocery store in West Oakland—by far the largest, and the only one in its immediate vicinity. (Mandela Grocery, a smaller grocery cooperative, is located two miles away near the West Oakland BART station.)
Despite people’s perception that grocery stores have thrived through the COVID era, that hasn’t really been the case for a lot of the smaller independent grocers, Ahmadi says: “The boon of the pandemic in the grocery industry has not been evenly distributed.”
At Community Foods, sales basically flat-lined a few months into the pandemic. And since November, the number of customers visiting the store dropped another 28 percent, prompting the store to lay off seven full-time employees—more than a third of its staff—and reduce hours for several of the ones who remained.
The problem, Ahmadi says, is that even the initial spike in sales didn’t necessarily wind up being a net positive. Community Foods had only been open for about nine months when the pandemic hit, and, as a small, relatively new independent grocer, it didn’t have cash reserves that it could use to increase its inventory to account for the sudden demand for certain essential items. “That's what a lot of the larger corporate retailers were able to do,” Ahmadi explains. “For example, toilet paper was one of the big ones: They could order extra pallets of toilet paper, shove them in the warehouse, wait until the shelves cleared, refill and maintain stock.”
At Community Foods, once the store’s shelves were depleted during those early weeks of the pandemic, they simply never got replenished—for months on end, in some cases. And so, “customers came in, saw we didn’t have the goods, and left,” Ahmad says.
Exacerbating the situation were what Ahmadi describes as the “anti-competitive” practices of the large corporate grocery chains, which strike deals with suppliers to lock down exclusive access to certain products, locking out smaller markets like Community Foods. It’s a practice that has been so pervasive during the pandemic that the National Grocers Association recently came out with a paper condemning what it contends are antitrust violations.
Ahmadi says mid-pandemic pivots like adding online ordering, with free delivery for seniors within a three-mile radius, helped a little bit, but not nearly enough. Meanwhile, given the devastating impact that the COVID crisis has had on low-income communities of color, Ahmadi recognizes that many of the store’s regular customers in West Oakland just don’t have much money to spend. Even though Ahmadi says his store’s prices are fairly competitive with the larger grocery chains, he’s had many regulars tell him that they now take the bus to shop at Walmart or Costco. Ahmadi says they’ll tell him, “I really want to just shop with you; this is our neighborhood market” — but also, “I’m on fixed income; I really need to make it stretch.”
The goal of the “booster” campaign is to increase customer traffic by 100 people a day over the next 30 days. Ahmadi says the company decided to go that route instead of doing a more standard crowdfunding campaign because his hope is that private investors, who have deeper pockets, will be the ones to give Community Foods Market the large cash infusion that it needs. (There is an active GoFundMe campaign, however, for supporters who live too far away from the store to shop there regularly.)
But Ahmadi says it’s hard to convince big investors to provide funding during a time when the store is struggling to bring customers in the door. The hope is that the campaign will help turn that tide. In that sense, Ahmadi says, it’s helpful for boosters to shop at the store even if they can only spend $5 or $10 at a time.
“That helps me go back to these potential funders and tell that story,” Ahmadi says. “The community has responded to our call. It’s rallying behind us. It’s choosing us again.”
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