Up until the ‘70s, The Food Mill was the only natural foods store in town. It bought dried fruits and nuts from farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and sold five-gallon buckets of fresh ground peanut butter and sacks of flour to hippie communes.
“It was quite an interesting time. When some of them would walk in, they’d about blow you over with the stench of marijuana,” said current owner Kirk Watkins.
The Food Mill has been a staple in Oakland’s Upper Dimond District for almost 86 years. Opened in 1933 by John Denis, a former stonemill salesman, it started as a general store specializing in freshly milled grains and baked goods. Two years after it opened, it moved across the street to its current location, and slowly shifted to offering health foods, becoming Oakland’s first natural food store.
Watkins started working at The Food Mill in 1969, when he was 16-years-old. He and his older brother, Art, worked on the Food Mill’s bakery line, packaging its popular cookie bars, as well as in the grocery, supplements and personal care sections.
In 1971, the Food Mill added the bulk foods space. At the time, the store was full-service — customers would hand over a list and wait while the workers would fill their order.
“We were the awkward, weird people back then and as time progressed, we came to be more hip. More people were in touch with their health and we were beginning to be a normal place for people to come, but that’s when the big companies got involved,” Watkins said.
Under the Denis family, the store operated as it always had, up until the late ‘80s when mass marketing challenged its word-of-mouth style and grain production died off. In 1993, when John Denis died, the Watkin brothers took over the store and made some much needed changes to the operation. They revamped and streamlined several facets, starting with closing the mill and making the bulk section, which boasts about 800 items, self-service.
Kirk Watkins has been at the store for 50 years now, and although officially off the payroll, he still works three days a week. Over the years, he has seen four generations of customers and even has a current employee whose mother worked at The Food Mill when she was a teen. The store still has regulars who have been customers since the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, but every week Watkins notices new customers, who find the store through online resources.
That online presence has been ushered in by the younger members of the Watkins family. Dan, one of Watkins’ sons, has been working at the store for 18 years and is poised to take over the store when his dad is ready to retire. Dan’s wife, Breanna, has been working at the store for about 10 years now, and together, the couple have helped escort the store into the 21st century with renovations and a social media presence.
The store’s most popular and unique section, supplements, has also seen an exciting update. The Food Mill is now offering a free monthly health seminar with its main nutritional consultant Autum Mihm. Watkins says the store is committed to educating folks on health and supplements, so customers will find a nutritional consultant on site to answer questions every day of the week.
Until a few months ago, The Food Mill baked its own breads on site, in a kitchen above the store. It stopped bread production (it was something people just weren’t buying, Watkins said), but a partnership with Oakland’s kosher Grand Bakery continues to put the kitchen to use. Grand bakes its products there, and as of recently, also produces The Food Mill’s cookie bars. Once a month, Grand holds a bagel pop-up at the store.
Watkins says the pop-up has been a great way to get new customers in the door, but when asked about the possibility of other pop-ups, Watkins admitted that while he sees how these events can bring in new, younger customers, it isn’t something he has had time to focus on.
He is aware of the things that keep the store’s current customers coming back, the “hominess, the family feel and the customer service. That’s what we have going for us, and people appreciate that.”
When asked what changes he wants to make to the store moving forward, Watkins said he doesn’t want any more change. He wants The Food Mill to keep the personal touch its cultivated since the beginning. As we walked through the store, Watkins greeted every customer we came across by name.
“As time progresses, little stores such as this are closing quite often; they’re going to be non-existent after a while, and that keeps making us more special as we hang in there.”