Dining Out - Farmer Joe's
Farmer Joe's: Bigger and better
By Stett Holbrook
Photography by: Lara Hata
In the morning before the grand opening of Farmer Joe’s Marketplace on June 24, owners Joe and Diana Tam were nervous that no one would show up.
They had spent 18 months and an undisclosed sum of money planning and overhauling a 20,000-square-foot former Albertson’s supermarket in Oakland’s Dimond district, and they weren’t sure how the public would respond. But those fears were quickly trampled by the crush of people that burst through the doors that day.
For many residents of this east Oakland neighborhood, this wasn’t just the opening of a new supermarket. This was a community event that marked one small step for consumers of organic produce and fancy cheese and a giant leap for the upwardly mobile (some would say gentrifying) neighborhood.
During those first few hours, a few ambitious people attempted to maneuver shopping carts through the giddy throngs of people to grocery shop, but most just came to gawk and admire the new store. And weeks after the opening, finding a parking space is just as difficult as it was at the original Farmer Joe’s at 35th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard.
“The response from the community has been incredible,” says Diana Tam. “We’re so grateful.”
The store expands on the success of the first store (which will stay open) by offering organic produce, meat and fish, natural foods and a variety of specialty high-end grocery items. But given its size—the store once housed a movie theater—there’s a lot more of everything. The meat and fish counter is much larger and carries a wider selection of Panorama grass-fed beef and Niman Ranch beef and pork. There’s also a self-serve olive oil and vinegar bar station that sells premium quality items.
Unlike the MacArthur Boulevard store, the new Farmer Joe’s has a deli, fresh-made sushi, a bakery featuring locally made cakes and pastries and Joe’s Grill, an in-house restaurant that sells burgers and sandwiches. Food from the grill (which wasn’t open at press time) is available to go or for dining at the tables in front of the store.
Farmer Joe’s also has a great selection of wine, beer and liquor, a welcome change for customers of the old store who had to walk across the street to the liquor store.
At first blush Farmer Joe’s is an upscale market akin to Whole Foods or the Berkeley Bowl, but the Tams have done a good job offering products that reflect the neighborhood’s economically diverse population. There’s an array of organic and conventionally grown produce and a great selection of Asian products. On the shelf you’ll find soy mayonnaise as well as jars of Best Foods mayo. In the meat department, Rosie’s organic chicken is sold right next to Foster Farms poultry. The Tams try to keep produce prices down by buying directly from farmers, something bigger chain stores can’t do.
“We feel we should be able to cater to all walks of life,” says Diana Tam.
The store’s employees, who have grown from about 20 at the original store to 70, are as diverse as the customers.
The original Farmer Joe’s market opened in 1994 and began selling high quality organic produce but soon evolved into a full-service supermarket as customers requested that they stock more merchandise. As an influx of more affluent residents altered the neighborhood’s demographics, the aisles of Farmer Joe’s became increasingly congested with shoppers loading up on premium items like Straus Family Creamery milk, organic lettuce and wild salmon.
“We basically ran out of room,” says Joe Tam.
Soon, customers were encouraging the Tams to expand into bigger surroundings. City Councilwoman Jean Quan and the Dimond Improvement Association, a neighborhood advocacy group, also encouraged the Tams to open another store. And so with great trepidation and promises of community support, they did.
The opening of the market represents a personal triumph for the Tams. Joe Tam emigrated from Shanghai when he was a teenager and worked as a field laborer in Fremont and Milpitas before landing a job as a produce clerk for Safeway where he worked for 19 years. He long had a desire to open his own business, and it was while working at the Redwood Road Safeway that he spotted the vacant space on 35th and MacArthur that would later become the first Farmer Joe’s.
Looking through the window of the new store’s break room (which used to be the projection room of the old movie theater) across the high ceiling expanse of the market, he marvels at how far he’s come.
“I did not imagine I would do something like this,” an achievement that he says was only made possible with the help of his wife.
Diana Tam, who also emigrated from China and who once worked as a seamstress with her mother, joined her husband in the business shortly after he opened the first store. For her part, she says it’s the community that has made both stores possible.
“This is really a neighborhood store where we want to take care of our special friends … that’s our objective. I don’t want to let them down.”