Oakland, CA, lives in the shadow of its big sister (San Francisco) across the bay. There is a lot of competition: sports teams, cultural events, alternative entertainment and food. Though Oakland is no rival when it comes to fine dining, it does have its share of unique grocery stores. Besides the usual big chains, the city of Oakland receives rent from many unique discount and specialty stores. Looking for organic strawberries? Thin-sliced prosciutto? Kids’ juice without corn syrup? You will find all of this and more all over Oakland. Here are two of my favorites.
First stop, Trader Joe’s, Emeryville. Trader Joe’s has stores nationwide, including Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York (Times Square), and one that just opened at 4500 Excelsior Blvd in St. Louis Park, MN. This unique import grocery store has somehow managed to offer exotic and healthy items at low prices. The store is not exactly in Oakland. It sits in a shopping center in Emeryville, a small incorporated city bordering Oakland and Berkeley. Trader Joe’s offers organic produce, dairy and meat products. And, you can find many varieties of juice drinks without the evil corn syrup. It also stocks almost any cheese you can think of, again at fabulous prices! (Half a pound of Gorgonzola for less than $2.50.)
Now, talk about specialty items: Have you ever tried dried oranges? How about Bool Kogi (served at Korean Barbeques)? You will find so many unique products. It’s nice to walk out of the store feeling like you just shopped at some upscale grocery boutique but only paid a fraction of the price. What do you think of 17 ounces of pump hand soap for $1.99? My kids like to taste what’s cooking at their kitchen counter in the back of the store. And there is always coffee and some new juice for customers to taste. Did I mention the employees are knowledgeable and friendly? One of the best things about the Emeryville Trader Joe’s is the parking. There is plenty and it’s free! (Oh, and their daily assortment of fresh and reasonably priced flowers.)
Next stop, the Grocery Outlet on Broadway not far from downtown Oakland. At first, you might just drive right on by this large store with the rainbow banner. It sits unassumingly amidst a block of car dealers. But once you discover this gem you will return more than once. As its name implies, it is an outlet. It sells discounted grocery items near expiration dates. You can buy a box of name-brand fresh pastries for tonight’s slumber party at half-price. Or, stock up on soda at $2 a six-pack.
Independently owned, the Outlet sells all of the usual grocery store items as well as a rotating supply of household items (patio furniture, pots, plants, school supplies, kitchen utensils, toys, etc.). They also host a large selection of wines, but rarely have organic foods. My favorite feature of the store is their candy aisle. On your way to the movies? Don’t want to pay $4 for a box of 15 M&M’s? Stop by the store for a regular sized bag for maybe 50 cents. There are many popular candies, often for as low as 25 cents. When buying any food item here, just be sure to check the expiration date and consider whether you will consume it in time. It’s tempting to buy just because it’s a good deal, but a waste if you don’t eat it. Again, this Oakland store has a large parking lot with no meters.
If you don’t gather what you are looking for at Trader Joe’s or the Grocery Outlet, you could try Farmer Joe’s in the Laurel or Dimond Districts. (More on this fabulous family-run business in another article.) Remember, when you are on the east side of the bay Oakland can offer you a unique and fruitful shopping experience.