Adelaida Castro still recalls the day 30 years ago when a Nigerian consulate employee walked into her store and asked about a leaf that becomes “slimy like okra” when cooked. At the time, her family’s grocery store was facing a crisis: Its Filipino customer base was moving out of Oakland. “We saw the writing on the wall,” she says. “There was a change in clientele.” The man’s request for a Nigerian comfort food revealed an opportunity to build a new customer base. Castro showed him a handful of jute leaves, which, like okra, get slimy when they’re cooked down. “That’s the one,” he said. “The guy was so happy about it,” Castro recalls.
The Castros’ store, known as Specialty Foods, Inc. since 2009, is now the Bay Area’s oldest African grocery. It is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. A Ghanaian flag hangs in the window of its storefront on Eighth Street, and dozens of African and Caribbean flags bedeck the interior. The aisles are stocked with plantains, palm nut concentrate, Scotch bonnet peppers, yam and cassava flours, shitɔ (pepper sauce), and ground egusi (melon seeds), a selection of West African staples and specialty items built up over three decades by two generations of Castros.
“If you ask anybody who ever had to move to a different country for a better life what they miss the most about home, it’s food,” says Nina Castro Cruz, Adelaida’s daughter, who currently manages the store. “I think that’s why we ended up with a slogan of ‘Just like home.’”
In 1968, when he was 27, Nina’s father Baltazar left home, following his parents from the Philippines to San Francisco. Baltazar Castro started selling food imported from the Philippines to other Filipinos who had come to the Bay Area after the Immigration Act of 1965 reopened the United States to immigration from Asia. In 1977, Castro and his wife, Adelaida, moved to Oakland and opened Oriental Lucky Mart inside the old Housewives Market in downtown Oakland.
“It was a rough neighborhood,” Adelaida Castro says. She remembers chasing thieves out of the store and befriending the prostitutes who lined up on Washington Street. “You’re so brave to stick out your stupid neck around here,” she recalls people telling her. The Castros earned respect by giving it. “I would greet everyone face-to-face and say, ‘Good morning, sir,’” says Castro, known as “Mama” to her friends and customers.
In the 1980’s, Filipinos who were living in the West Oakland housing projects started taking advantage of professional training courses offered through community colleges. Many became certified nursing assistants. Gradually, they moved out of the projects and into new developments in Fremont and Union City, where Filipino chain markets like Seafood City and Island Pacific opened up. “Four or five people working in one family would sign for a loan, buy a house together,” Castro recalls.
As her Filipino customers moved up the economic ladder and out of Oakland, Africans were moving in. Many of Oakland’s new West African immigrants worked as nursing assistants alongside Filipinos, and they started shopping with their coworkers at Oriental Lucky Mart.
“What do you eat?” Adelaida Castro would ask the Nigerians and Liberians who came into her store. When they mentioned a product the store didn’t carry, the Castros found a way to get it. For a while, she says, they imported cassava leaves grown by farmers in the New People’s Army, a communist rebel force fighting the Filipino government.
One day a man from Ghana brought in a sample of wele, or cowhide, which West Africans singe, boil and serve in soups and gravies. “I called up the lady at USDA,” Adelaida Castro says. “She hates me. ‘Come down here,’ I said, ‘I have something to show you.’” When the woman from the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspected the wele, she said it fell within “a gray area” of federal food regulations. Castro called up a slaughterhouse on the East Coast she thought could supply cowhides. “You’re gonna make some money,” she said. “It’s within the law.”
West Africans traveled from all over California and beyond to shop at Oriental Lucky Mart. “I used to come from Fresno in the ‘80s,” says Andy Simon, who moved from Nigeria in 1984. One man flew in from Nevada and wheeled a suitcase into the store, consulting a long grocery list. “I’m shopping for everyone in Reno,” he told the Castros.
“One thing I’m very proud of is the trust the customers gave us,” says Adelaida Castro. One day, driving home, she saw one of her customers coming out of the courthouse. “Stop the car. Stop the car,” she told her husband. The customer told the Castros that her husband was in immigration detention. Unless he put up $1,000 for bail, he would remain in custody until his hearing. “Come to the store tomorrow,” Adelaida Castro told the woman. “We’ll talk about it.” The next day, Castro gave her the money to pay her husband’s bail.
“We are in this together,” Adelaida Castro says. “You never know when you’ll need it.” After the Rodney King verdict in 1992, the Castros feared their store would be damaged if riots broke out. People in the neighborhood told the Castros to go home and rest. “No one will touch your store,” they said. While most of the rioting ended up happening in San Francisco, and Oakland stayed relatively quiet, the Castros knew their store would stay safe.
“The Castros held their business at the highest standard of integrity,” says Fatai Yusufu, a Nigerian who was one of their first customers and later, as the owner of Ola-Ola wholesalers in Sacramento, one of their biggest suppliers. “The way the business is now, with the kids, it’s because of how Bal was.”
When Baltazar—Bal—Castro died in 2009, and Adelaida retired, their three daughters, Leilani, Marie, and Nina took over the business and changed its name to Specialty Foods, Inc. The second generation is happy to follow in their parents’ footsteps. “We are very proud immigrants,” says Nina Castro Cruz, 33. “It really brings me joy when people get excited over the little things.”
Ebiere Awudu, who is from Nigeria, says she was overwhelmed when she first saw Specialty Foods, Inc. a few weeks ago. “They have everything, stuff I had been looking for that I couldn’t find anywhere.” She was especially excited to find Maggi spice cubes, Nando’s Peri-Peri sauces, and Guinness malt drinks. “I’m going to keep shopping here,” she says.
Text by Caleb Hampton; video by Muna Danish.