Thank goodness for corner stores. In the age of COVID-19, convenience stores and specialty markets have come into their own. Along with providing basic provisions (and then some), these independently owned businesses are often a hub for their communities — a place to pick up groceries, household goods and the latest neighborhood news. Nosh is paying tribute to a few of them. We fully acknowledge this is just a tiny sample — so please leave a comment telling us about your favorite neighborhood store and how it’s rising to the challenge of serving its community during a public health crisis.
Preet Kaur and Gary Singh once owned a local taxi company, working long hours while raising their two young children.
“I always felt like driving a taxi was the wrong profession,” Kaur said. “What I really wanted was a store.”
So Singh visited markets around town, asking the owners if they might be interested in selling. Turned out, the owners of Cedar Market were. That was five years ago. Initially Singh and Kaur rented the property before buying it outright. In the early days of ownership, they slept in an apartment at the back of the store while they renovated and stocked the shelves to supply the neighborhood.
The Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association lists the building on the corner of California and Cedar streets as having been constructed in 1916, though Kaur and Singh have photos and other documents, which they say suggest it was built closer to the turn of the century, operating continuously as a market under different owners.
Remodeling uncovered old painted signage and large glass windows that let light into the store and provide a view of the surrounding neighborhood. Kaur and Singh are thinking about how they might incorporate murals and other detail from the past to recognize the market’s long history. The high-ceilinged, bright store has wide, clean aisles, and a varied, useful assortment of items on the shelves. Their two children, now teenagers who attend Berkeley High, often help out at the market.
Although owning a store had been a long-time dream, “We had zero experience with retail,” Kaur said. The two had to learn everything about managing and supplying a small grocery from the bottom up. Much of that education has been provided by customers, who have told them what they want and need from a neighborhood market.
Kaur and Singh’s market isn’t the sort of cramped mini-mart stocked mostly with Monster energy drinks, Flamin’ Hot Nacho Doritos, Slim Jims and Pabst tallboys. It’s more like a small supermarket. Large refrigerators are filled with products like Chobani yogurt, Clover milk, Judy’s organic eggs, Häagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerry’s, and sometimes, Indian ice cream. The stocked aisles hold a great variety of other items, including fresh fruits and vegetables. I went in looking for organic molasses, not expecting to find it, but I did. The store also has a good selection of wines and craft beers.
“We don’t drink,” Preet told me. “The wine and beer choices, like most of what we sell, come from requests and recommendations from our customers. We keep a notebook and pen at the counter for customers to tell us what they want. This is truly a community store.”
Mike Goodbar has shopped at Cedar Market since 1998. “The new owners strive to meet the tastes of the neighborhood rather than just stocking the staples,” he told me in an email.
In addition to packaged Indian fare, the store offers fresh, crispy samosas filled with potatoes, onions, peas and green chiles, served with a choice of two sauces, one green, one red tamarind. Kaur makes the samosas herself each morning before work.
“We’re vegetarians,” she told me. “This is what we like to eat. Before the pandemic, we were selling about 50-70 a day. Now we’re at about 30.” Though it was just after noon when I purchased the last two, suggesting that perhaps demand is ramping back up. Before the shelter-in-place order, she also sold homemade curry and chai.
“Customers really miss the curry. They’ve asked me to make a YouTube video showing them how to make it,” Kaur said.
Another change — Cedar Market has shortened its hours. Once open from 7 a.m.-10 p.m., daily, it’s now operating from 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
“We used to get early morning traffic,” Kaur said. “People on their way to BART, grabbing donuts and coffee, and then later in the evening when they returned. Now people are home, they can come in any time. Fewer people are shopping.”
Those who do shop will find shelves well-stocked, including coveted items like toilet paper, disinfectant wipes and cleaners. All the workers were wearing cloth masks when I visited, and several had full plastic face shields over the masks. A long piece of clear plastic sheeting hangs in front of the cash register. A table has been placed in front of the counter to provide distance between customers and cashiers.
“Cedar Market represents the small neighborhood store that many of us grew up with that’s disappearing from the national landscape. The current owners are clearly vested in carrying on the tradition of the neighborhood store,” Goodbar said.
A steady stream of customers passed through on the weekday afternoon when I visited. Kaur and Singh greeted most by name and asked after their families. After a recent break-in where one of the front windows was smashed, a neighbor coordinated a GoFundMe campaign to collect money to replace the window. He turned up at the shop with an envelope full of cash for Kaur.
“He wanted to surprise me,” Kaur said. “We love our neighbors.”