I remember many years ago, growing up in El Sobrante. We lived on Santa Rita Road, where my father currently lives. Behind our house, my best friend, Noelle, lived with her family. Many of our former neighbors still live there in the same houses and have for decades. To this day, every time I turn on Santa Rita Road to visit my father, I pass by Central Foods.
When I was asked to write this article, I was thrilled to do so because of my fond memories of the business. Central Foods was always the store that my parents purchased their meats, fresh produce, and breads at daily and prepared for dinner that evening. I also remember as a young child, when I did not feel well, my dear mother would always make an appointment with our family physician, Dr. Archibald. She would drive me to his office, then to the pharmacy, and finally, just before we turned up the street to go home, she would stop at Central Foods to pick up juice, cereal, and a small toy or coloring book to help me feel better. She always returned with a message from the Central Foods staff that they hoped I felt better. It didn’t matter who the staff member was – we all knew each other and regarded each other as friends - always. There were many times that my friends and I would walk down Santa Rita Road from our house to Central Foods to purchase candy, gum, beef sticks or beef jerky and a soda (back then, Coca Cola was sold in glass bottles with bottle caps). We were in heaven because that was always a treat. We were always greeted with a smile and a welcome that only a close-knit community would know.
Central Foods has endured many changes over the years including several changes of ownership. When I was growing up, Charlie and Jean Wong and their family owned and operated the store. Even though the ownership has changed, many things have remained the same. One of the things I remember most is always being greeted personally by the Wong family and being made to feel welcome, but even greater than that, we were always shown appreciation for our patronage and commitment to shopping at Central Foods. This is one principle that remains the same today and is evident the moment you walk in the door. Your patronage and your satisfaction are of utmost importance to the staff at Central Foods.
I had the pleasure of meeting the new store manager, Rafael Mendez Del Rio. When I shared with him my fond memories of Central Foods and the warm welcome and genuine respect for clients that I remember when I was growing up, he shared that he also has those same feelings for his clients and members of our community. “We want the community to know we are here,” says Rafael. When he took over management of the store this past February, much work was necessary to bring the property up to operating standards. The building was empty and needed to be cleaned and organized. New equipment was needed and purchased, including, new dairy and meat display cases, new freezers, registers, shelving, lighting and displays, new signs, and revamped landscaping. Once this work was completed, stock was added and the store prepped for its grand opening. You can certainly tell the hard work and commitment that went into prepping the store for the arrival of customers.
I must tell you, the store looks wonderful and there are quite a generous amount of items offered at this corner store, The new meat section offers many cuts of meat including espaldilla, palomilla, costillu depuerco, pierna depuerco, chuleta depuerco, and espinoso depuerco. There is also Mexican sausage, veal, chicken, all featuring specialized or custom cuts and even some organic products. The meat counter is in the same place as it was when I was a kid. Eventually, a gourmet deli is planned to widen the offerings. Folks seem excited about the meats – there are good meats at great prices. Many folks came in as I was at the store and excitedly looked over the selections or inquired about specific cuts and organic products. “If someone wants something, we research it,” states Rafael. That is exactly what he did during our interview, when a good friend of mine, Barry Schneider, who I had not seen for quite some time, walked up to inquire about organic chicken.
The produce section is still in the front of the store and runs along the side to the back of the store. Rafael hopes to expand the produce section more and add bins for various fruits and vegetables in the front at the store entrance. The produce is fresh and offers an excellent array of items which will continue to expand as needs and clients’ desires increase. As with the meats, many organic items are offered in the produce section as well.
Ethnic items such as spices and kosher foods are also a specialty of Central Foods. Rafael plans to increase offerings in the ethnic section as well to cater to a wider range of clientele and try to offer something for everyone. Rafael works with many vendors to secure items according to the desires of his clients. If you don’t see something, request it – the management is very willing and happy to research your request and accommodate it if possible.
In addition to Central Foods, Rafael’s brother, Jesus, also owns a grocery store in Berkeley. Rafael has been in business for the past nine years, helping his brother in Berkeley, until he took over managing Central Foods this past year. Because the stores are family-owned, the money goes to the local community, not to a corporate headquarters far away, thus the store benefits as does the local community. The Berkeley store also has long-term partnerships with the local schools, youth, and church groups and offers donations, mostly of food such as produce or other needed items for snack programs and the like. They also donate volunteer time for projects to assist their fellow community partners. Rafael would like to see this same commitment to the community take place at Central Foods by reaching out to the El Sobrante community to assist our schools and youth or church groups. There are other projects in mind too, including a tile project for the storefront where individuals or groups can each decorate a tile with their logo or name and it will be placed on the storefront as a permanent reminder of Central Foods’ commitment to the local community.
I was truly impressed with Central Foods and the positive changes that have occurred in the years since my childhood memories of the store. There is a true commitment to customers that is shown by the present offerings and intent to increase those offerings across different products and services. More importantly, the personalized service and sincere gratitude expressed by Rafael and his staff truly demonstrate their sincere commitment to their clients and community. I really feel that when you are valued and feel welcomed by local businesses, it creates a feeling that nothing else can match. When I asked Rafael what he wished to communicate most to the community, he responded, “Our plan is to be here. We’re really into making it work. We’re here to stay.”
Central Foods is located at 4352 Appian Way in El Sobrante and is open daily from 8am to 10pm. The phone number is 510-223-4532. Call or stop by to browse the store and meet the staff. And remember, if you don’t see something you are looking for, request it.