On the Corner: Berkeley’s Convenience Store Owners

by Sarah Henry on July 25, 2011 · 21 comments

in berkeley bites,food businesses,food security

Ashby Super Market, on the corner of Ashby and MLK in Berkeley. All photos: Christina Diaz

The corner store is a vital indicator of the economic, racial, and cultural makeup of any community. What people buy — whether it’s Coke or coconut water, deli meat or goat cheese, Hostess cakes or gluten-free baked goods, cheap hard liquor or expensive artisan brews — offers insight into the kinds of customers that frequent a business and their purchasing power.

For many people, the corner grocer remains their main — or only — source of sustenance. And, perhaps, equally importantly, a gathering place in a given neighborhood.

Some corner stores unapologetically flaunt booze and fast food, others offer ethnic staples or specialty foods, still others a combo of both. The products on the shelves — eclectic and quirky as they sometimes are (incense and pantyhose alongside a sea of cigarettes and processed salty or sugary food-like substances wrapped in fluorescent-colored packaging) provide clues to the character of the surrounding community.

The owners and managers who work behind the counters have their own tales to tell. Corner stores in cities around the country are traditionally run by immigrants and Berkeley is no exception. Of the five stores profiled below, all located on or close to Ashby Avenue, four owners have roots in Yemen, one is a first-generation American whose father was also a storekeeper.

Many corner store owners come in search of a better life for their families with hopes for a brighter future. English is often not their first language, some deal with crime and violence in or near their stores, and they’re not immune to hardship or hard work. Some become integral to their communities, others prefer to toil in relative anonymity.

In the first of an occasional series on Berkeley’s corner stores, we set out to get a taste of the flavor of five such grocers in South Berkeley.

Ashby Marketplace

Ramiz Hasan stands next to his extensive gluten-free section at Ashby Marketplace.

Ashby Marketplace on Ashby Street at College Avenue

Owner: Ramiz Hasan, 30, owned store for two years this October, has worked in corner stores in San Francisco with his father since the age of 12.

Hometown: Born and raised in the Bay Area.

Best-selling items: Flavored drinks, teas, organics, gluten-free goods, chocolate, deli sandwiches.

Clientele: “As eclectic as the community: Local residents, intellectuals from the university, including brilliant students, tourists, vivacious people, busybodies, a little bit of everything.”

What’s next: Expanded tea and gluten-free section and beer and wine in the Berkeley store. Plans to open an organic convenience store in San Francisco.

Claim to fame: Friends since high school with San Francisco sandwich guru Ike Shehadeh, who’s been known to pop by Ashby Marketplace. Last month, Shehadeh posted a tweet when he spotted the actress Jennifer Garner in line at Hasan’s store after she’d attended a breakfast for First Lady Michelle Obama at the Claremont Hotel.

Ashby Super Market

Store owner's sons Abdul Hadi, 10, and Murad Hussein, 14, with manager Obaida Jaber of Ashby Super Market on MLK.

Ashby Super Market on Ashby at Martin Luther King Way

Owner: Anwar Hussein, 36, whose family hails from Yemen, has run this store for five years. He lives in Oakland and has four sons and a daughter, who is soon to be married.

Manager: Obaida Jaber, 34

Best-selling items: Deli sandwiches, cold cuts, and falafel, pita, and hummus.

Clientele: “All kinds: African-American, Anglo, Middle Eastern.”

Store pros: “The location: Close to BART, the flea market, library, and theatre.”

Claim to fame: Frequented by actors and other theater types from nearby Ashby Stage.

Secret to success: “We sell no alcohol so we have no problems. It’s a good community here.”

Sacramento Market

Owner Yaser Musid has expanded Sacramento Market's produce section.

Sacramento Market on Sacramento Street at Ashby

Owner: Yaser Musid, 40, has owned this market for just over two years and the nearby Friendly Market (at California and Ward Streets) for 18 years.

Hometown: Yemen, has lived in the U.S. for 20 years.

Best-selling items: A mix of grocery, deli items, beer and wine. Extensive spice selection. No hard liquor.

Clientele: “About 90-95 percent African American.”

Recent improvements: “More produce.”

Challenges: “Everything is so expensive. There’s not too much profit in the business anymore.”

Family matters: “I don’t want this life for my children. It’s fine for me to keep going here but I want my children to have opportunities and a better life. When you run a corner store you have to keep your eye on everything. No corner store for my children.”

McGee’s Market

Eli Amhadi of McGee's Market lives across the street from the store he owns.

McGee’s Market on McGee Avenue at Oregon

Owner: Eli Amhadi, 43, owned business for 15 years, lives across the street, has three children.

Hometown: Yemen

Best-selling items: A variety of grocery goods. Sells beer and wine, no hard liquor.

Clientele: “A mix of people, mostly from the neighborhood, most come in every day. It’s a good neighborhood. We never have problems. I know my customers and they know me.”

Pros: “I like to work for myself. I don’t like having a boss and having to do what someone else tells me to do.”

Cons: “It’s all I know how to do. It’s the only job I’ve ever done. I work seven days a week.”

J&B Fine Foods Market

Faiz Kaid manages J&B Fine Foods for his brother Ali Kassim.

J&B Fine Foods Market on Adeline Street at Harmon

Owner: Ali Kassim

Manager: Faiz Kaid, 40, Kassim’s brother, who has lived here 11 years. Kaid, who has seven children, lives above the store, as does Kassim, who has four children.

Hometown: Yemen. “When we first came here we were afraid for our children. We’d heard stories about kidnappings. But my children can walk to school here and I know people in the neighborhood look out for them.”

Best-selling items: Fried foods like chicken and chips, meat, sodas, candy. No longer sells alcohol.

Clientele: “A mix of black, white, Mexican, and Middle Eastern.”

Customer loyalty, part one: “One day a long time ago now, some guy came in and snatched a bunch of stuff and ran out of the store. My brother and I chased after him like a couple of crazies all the way down to San Pablo Avenue. We left the store wide open. When we came back, we found a regular customer who had closed the doors and wouldn’t let anyone in. She had seen what happened and was standing watch until we got back.”

Customer loyalty, part two: “Sometimes our customers are short a few cents and that’s okay. They always bring us the money next time. It’s not like they’re going anywhere.”

Cons: “Long days, long hours, not much money, sitting in the same place every day for years.”

Family matters: “My kids are getting an education, so they won’t have to do this job. They can be whatever they want to be. They will be something and have a good life.”

Photographer Christina Diaz likes to shoot life as it happens.

[Hat-tip: The Bold Italic for their post Life on the Corner, which profiled grocery store owners in San Francisco's Western Addition and inspired this story.]

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

You might also like:

First Lady, Food Deserts, and New Fund for Hungry
James Berk of Mandela Foods Brings Produce to his People
Urban Youth on Growing and Selling Good Food

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Living Large July 25, 2011 at 11:04 am

This post brought back memories of our own corner grocer we had when I was growing up. I had the opportunity to work there for a time before it became a liquor store. :(


Sarah Henry July 26, 2011 at 11:17 am

Love this slice-of-life anecdote, Living Large, and want to know more, about who owned the store, what you sold, and that transition from grocer to liquor store.


MyKidsEatSquid July 25, 2011 at 11:53 am

It brought memories back for me too. Sadly, most of those stores are now closed.


Sarah Henry July 26, 2011 at 11:19 am

What kind of memories MKES? Our corner store sold the afternoon paper, smokes, and the lollies (candies) I loved as a kid growing up in Sydney. Back then, lots of corner markets in my hometown run by Italian and Greek immigrants.

Your turn.


Jennifer Margulis July 25, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Glad these groceries are thriving! We used to have one in my neighborhood in Atlanta but it only sold booze and Twinkies…


Sarah Henry July 26, 2011 at 11:19 am

Booze and Twinkies, hey? There’s a balanced diet.


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. July 25, 2011 at 2:37 pm

very cool that you took this idea and ran with it – it’s really interesting to see the variation in best-selling items in each store. There really is something for everyone at a convenience store, I suppose.


Sarah Henry July 26, 2011 at 11:20 am

I would have thought that milk, bread, and water would be top sellers. Who knew?


Jane Boursaw July 25, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Great round-up of corner stores, and how fun to see such diversity in the products. I also just love the concept of corner stores in a world where big box mega-stores seem everywhere.


Sarah Henry July 26, 2011 at 11:20 am

It’s a bit like rooting for drive-in theaters to survive, isn’t it Jane?


Kerry July 26, 2011 at 4:11 am

I liked hearing the voices of the people behind the stores, and it made me think of corner stores I’ve been to in several different parts of the world. community gathering places, certainly.


Sarah Henry July 26, 2011 at 11:21 am

I’m fascinated by the fact that different immigrant groups set up shop, literally, in one community versus another. Curious to read the scholarly research on same.


Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart July 26, 2011 at 6:39 am

Such an interesting perspective and way to present the narrative. The photos, in particular, will stay with me.


Sarah Henry July 26, 2011 at 11:23 am

Agreed, Roxanne, one of those pieces where the images really say so much more than the interviews, and for that I have the talented Christina Diaz to thank.


Emily Doan July 26, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Interesting perspective on a business that we all frequent on auto-pilot without thinking about who is behind the counter. Great to hear their voice in this article.


Sarah Henry July 26, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Hi Emily, Nice to see you here and thanks for chiming in and for getting the essence of this post in a nutshell.


Sheryl July 26, 2011 at 5:25 pm

I have fond memories of the smattering of small corner stores we had surrounding us growing up on Long Island. Sadly, places like this don’t exist much anymore, much like the demise of the local hardware store. I always loved those, too.


Sarah Henry July 30, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Not to mention the cobbler. Where do you go to get shoes repaired these days?


merr July 27, 2011 at 7:02 am

This reminded me of a couple of markets that were close to campus where I went to college in Arizona (Tucson). The Time Market and Market Spot. I know Market Spot no longer exists, and I am not sure about The Time Market but reading this post and seeing the photos made me nostalgic for the feel of community grocers and markets that just kind of fit in the neighborhoods.


Sarah Henry July 30, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Maybe, merr, a little road trip is in order to check out your old college haunts.


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