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.
When Jennifer Freese bought Franklin Bros. Market in 2014, she had already been a customer for more than 20 years. Freese has lived across the street from the Berkeley corner store since 1998, and would pop in if she found she was short on an ingredient for a meal. Still, Freese wouldn’t exactly describe the old iteration of Franklin Bros. as a “genuine neighborhood store.”
“The selection was very limited. You couldn’t really put together a dinner then,” said Freese, who before owning the store worked for nonprofits. “So when I took over, I really wanted to make something for everyone in the neighborhood.”
Franklin Bros. now brands itself as “a tiny full-service market.” While it sells all the goods that a customer would expect of a corner store — cookies and crackers, bread, chips, soda, beer and wine — it also offers high-quality items you’d more likely find in a bigger grocery store, like Mary’s chicken and SunFed Ranch beef, and organic produce from Veritable Vegetable and Earl’s Organic Produce. Its stock also reflects the diverse West Berkeley community. Its bread selection, for example, includes naan, lavash, gluten-free multigrain options, Acme sour baguettes and hot dog buns.
“We have a really diverse neighborhood so we try to have a diverse product selection,” said Freese. “Whatever people want, that’s what we want to sell.”
In the pre-pandemic days, customers typically came in for just a few items, like Freese used to do, and would then do their heavy shopping elsewhere. But at present, some shoppers feel safer going to less crowded neighborhood stores. Corner markets have been a lifeline for many East Bay residents who want to keep their pantries stocked while limiting the amount of time they spend in public.
Freese understands the concern. Franklin Bros. is only around 900 square feet, complicating social distancing and adequate customer service. So, while the market is open for business, it’s closed for in-person shopping.
“That was just out of concern for safety for staff, myself, and shoppers,” she said. “I could maybe let one person at a time in the store, maybe two.”
Freese’s solution was to move business online and offer no-contact pickup. Customers do their shopping from home via the online shop. Customers then pick up items curbside.
“We are offering everything that we normally would carry, with the exception of prepared foods and coffee service,” said Freese. “It took us a few days to set up a bare-bones system but we’ve been improving it since.”
Freese intends to go forward with the current system as long as necessary. “I feel like online orders with curbside pickup feels the safest for the staff and the community. That’s why we’re going to stick with it,” she explained.
There is one snag for which Freese has yet to work out a good solution. Though the market accepts and offers a 10% discount on EBT purchases, the online store will not process EBT debit cards. Customers who wish to use EBT should first place their orders online, then call to pay over the phone. While Franklin Bros. does also take orders by telephone, Freese prefers online orders because it is easier to keep track of items and ensure orders are properly filled.
Franklin Bros does deliver, but only to established customers with mobility issues who live in the neighborhood. At this time the market is not taking new delivery clients.
Despite decades of history with the store, both as a customer and now as the owner, Freese still has no idea who the Franklin brothers were. “I have followed the paper trail back to 1964, that’s where I lose track of it,” she said. “Though as far as I know, it has been a corner store for longer than that and the building was built in 1910.”
“I did hear from somebody who grew up in the neighborhood in the ‘50s that the son of the owner was named Franklin,” said Freese, “but he didn’t know if the store was named after the kid or the kid for the store.”
Freese points out that even though Franklin Bros is a neighborhood market, customers don’t have to live in the neighborhood to shop there. “We’re open to business to anyone who wants to get their groceries through no-contact pickup,” she said. “If you ever feel like in-person shopping is less appealing to you, we’re open.”