How local grocer became a natural wonder

How local grocer became a natural wonder
All photos courtesy of El Cerrito Natural Grocery Company.

By Mike Kinney

Bob Gerner, founder of the popular El Cerrito Natural Grocery Company (which, in fact, is actually located within Richmond city limits), has been dedicated to the natural food business for more than 50 years, since he attended his first Organic Merchants meeting in early 1970 on Mount Shasta, according to Laurie Wilt, a Kensington resident and spokesperson for the employee-owned company.

“This was the start of the natural foods movement and we are still guided by the principles adopted by this organization,” Wilt said.  “Their goal was to promote organic agriculture and to sell wholesome unrefined natural foods. The Organic Merchants defined these as foods without white flour, white sugar, hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, artificial colors, or preservatives.”

In 1971, Gerner was one of the founder of Westbrae Natural Foods, a retail store and food manufacturing company at 1336 Gilman St., the present location of the Berkeley Natural Grocery Company.

“As the manufacturing portion of Westbrae expanded and moved to a larger warehouse, Bob bought the retail portion of the company and renamed it ‘Gilman Street Gourmet Natural Foods and Delicatessen,'” Wilt said. “Bob wanted to reach a broader range of people so he expanded the bakery, added a delicatessen with over 50 unique vegetarian dishes, and produced and sold the first tofu burger in the United States.”

In 1980, Gerner sold the Gilman Street Gourmet to devote more time to Westbrae Natural Foods and to get married. After the store’s buyer went bankrupt before completing the purchase, Gerner and his wife Pattie reopened the store in 1981 calling it Berkeley Natural Grocery Co., the beginning of The Natural Grocery Company we know today, according to Wilt.

The El Cerrito Natural Grocery Company opened at 10367 San Pablo Ave. in 1988, although Wilt noted the actual store footprint is in Richmond.

“We are a proud member of the El Cerrito Chamber of Commerce and the City of Richmond receives our city taxes,” Wilt said.

Recently, El Cerrito Natural Grocery hosted a business mixer for the El Cerrito Chamber of Commerce (video from the event follows, courtesy of Supervisor John Gioia’s office).

In 2002, the Natural Grocery Company became employee owned (Employee Stock Ownership Plan), and the following year the Employees of the Berkeley Store launched the Non-GMO Project with the People Want to Know Campaign, according to Wilt.

Then in 2014, the El Cerrito Natural Grocery Prepared Food Annex opened at 10387 San Pablo Ave. in El Cerrito, commonly referred to as “The Annex.”

“Its name is a nod to the area called The Richmond Annex, which is where Bob Gerner grew up and where it is located,” Wilt said.

The El Cerrito Grocery Store won the East Bay Express Reader Poll for Best Natural Food Store in 2021 and in 2022.

“We work with a lot of smaller operations to provide items you probably won’t be able to find in a lot of larger stores,” Wilt said. “In the Autumn we sometimes have 30-50 different apple varieties. Most large stores wouldn’t be interested in a few cases of an obscure heirloom apple but we take it because we want to share the joy of diversity with our customers.”

The worker-owned business doesn’t just sell food to make money. “We believe in caring for our resources and providing healthy, nutritious ingredients to our community,” Wilt said.

“We are a community of individuals working towards the health of ourselves, our families and the population at large.”

“I think that commitment to our ideals is what sets us apart,” she said. “It isn’t always about the bottom line. We are a community of individuals working towards the health of ourselves, our families and the population at large.”

That dedication is proven in the store’s product offerings. The store only sells organic produce. Its Bulk Foods Department is almost all organic.

“When it comes to grocery and meat products it gets more difficult to source 100 percent organic and keep the variety that our customers want so we do our very best to vet the ingredients and operations to make sure they align with our values,” Wilt said.

The store’s Café features Equal Exchange Organic/Fair Trade Coffee and Juice Bar that uses the same organic produce sold in its the stores, its Ice Cream Counter features Straus Ice Cream and Mr. Dewie’s Cashew Ice Cream, and its Bakery Department makes tasty organic treats, special order cakes and pastries, as well as morning baked goods like muffins, scones, cinnamon rolls and biscuits. Vegan and wheat free items are offered, although the store is not a gluten free facility, according to Wilt.

The store also has a Deli that prepares grab and go sandwiches, salads and dishes to eat in or take-out, a Wine & Beer Department focusing on natural, organic and craft beverages, and a Floral Department that was co-winner for Best Flower Shop in the 2022 El Cerrito Chamber of Commerce Best of El Cerrito competition.

The El Cerrito Natural Grocery Company hasn’t reopened its Pizza Counter that closed during the pandemic, but “we are working towards it,” Wilt said.

But the store is offering its self-service salad bar, hot dishes, pre-made burritos and wraps, fresh rotisserie chicken using Mary’s Organic Chicken, and soups and other hot items (that are usually posted daily (Monday-Friday) to the store’s Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Both the Berkeley and El Cerrito grocery stores are certified California Green Businesses.

“Our El Cerrito location was recently celebrated as a Green Business at the Contra Costa County Sustainability Awards just this past Autumn,” Wilt said. “When we were planning the Annex, we worked with Arkin Tilt Architects to design a space that incorporated the most sustainable ideas available at that time.

“You may notice the solar panels that are on the roofs of both our San Pablo Avenue locations as well as over a portion of the parking lot,” Wilt said. “Additionally, we have an electric car charging station in our lot that provides an hour of free charging during business hours for customers.”

What customers don’t see are the bee hives on the roof. The hives are maintained by Bay Area Bee Company, according to Wilt.

“When they produce enough honey, we get jars to sell in our stores that tell you it’s from our bees!,” Wilt said. “We have deposit programs that we support from several of our vendors like Hummingbird, Straus Creamery and Three Stone Hearth. We purchase items in non-plastic packaging whenever possible. All our ‘plastic’ containers are actually bioplastic and even though you can’t currently compost them because the municipal services don’t support it, you can feel a bit better knowing they won’t break down into microplastics in our landfill.”

Customers can also bring their own containers, which store employees weigh and then fill from its Bulk Department.

“We remove the weight of the container from the purchase at check-out,” Wilt said.

Wilt also noted the store sells fresh ground-your-own peanut and almond butters.

Also, the store only carries water in aluminum, paper or glass.

“We provide a Reverse Osmosis Water Filter System for our customers who want to fill up their own containers and that is what we use to wash our produce,” Wilt said. “Recent audits of our composting show that we are doing a great job separating our waste and making sure it goes to the right place (compost, recycling, landfill).”

The El Cerrito Natural Grocery Company and the El Cerrito Natural Grocery Company Prepared Food Annex open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.