‘The heartbeat of the neighborhood’: Berkeley’s Star Grocery turns 100

Quirky Berkeley 11-28-2016
Quirky Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif. on November 28th, 2016.

The family-owned shop has aided Berkeley residents through the Great Depression and COVID pandemic.

A 2015 photo of Star Grocery’s classic facade. Credit: John Storey

BERKELEYSIDE – Stepping into Berkeley’s Star Grocery (3068 Claremont Ave.) is a little like stepping back in time. The grocery was founded by two Greek immigrant brothers 100 years ago, and still has the look and feel of an old-fashioned neighborhood market, from the handwritten bulletins next to the front door to the narrow aisles and vintage cash registers. Customers still can use charge slips to buy their groceries, paying at the end of the month.

But look closer, and you’ll see that offerings are more in line with a contemporary sensibility: French wine, organic quinoa, half-baked gourmet pizzas from Nabolom Bakery, organic imported jams and dozens — if not hundreds — of high-end chocolate bars.

The upstairs area of Star Grocery is packed with memorabilia from its century in business, like this undated photo from inside the shop. Credit: Elise Proulx

Star Grocery manages to blend the best of the past and the present. It’s a neighborhood center where you’re always likely to run into acquaintances and friends, where everyone who enters the annual Halloween pumpkin carving contest gets to go home with an ice cream treat of any flavor and any size (even full-size tubs!), and where its (mainly young adult) employees are eager and willing to help. 

Star Grocery’s second-generation owner, Nick Pappas, stands in his shop at the beginning of the pandemic. Credit: Pete Rosos

Post-World War II, the market was “fantastically successful” said second-generation owner Nick Pappas. Nick’s dad, Jim Pappas, founded the business with his brother (also named Nick) in 1922; 50 years later, in 1972, Nick took it over. Right after the war might have been a high point for the operation as the market employed up to 25 people, and conducted a bustling delivery business with four trucks.

The Pappas family celebrating the 1949 store remodel. Current owner Nick Pappas is the small boy in the sailor suit. The other boy is his brother, and his mom and sister are on the other side of the wine display. Courtesy: Mar Hooper/Berkeley Historical Plaque Project

It’s also where many in the neighborhood felt safe during the darkest parts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The market initiated safety protocols early and well, and customers were willing to line up outside to limit the number of shoppers inside the business. 

“We were very successful because of COVID,” Pappas said. “We’re still at a pretty high level of business.” 

The pandemic wasn’t the first time the Pappas family provided help in a time of crisis. A Berkeley Historical Plaque affixed to the building tells the story of how the Pappas brothers aided families in the 1930s.

“During the Depression, the Pappas brothers generously extended credit, writing off thousands in unpaid bills,” it reads. 

In multiple interviews with those who grew up in the Claremont from the 1940s to the 1970s, this story of the Pappas family’s generosity was brought up as an example of why the store is such a special place.

Star Grocery employee Meredith pricing meat for a customer at the butcher’s counter in April 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

Eric De Vos, who is known as Red Hawkins, now lives in Saginaw, Michigan. He lived in a house on El Camino Real from 1958 through the late 1960s while his father was an anthropology professor at UC Berkeley. 

“Star Grocery was the place to go after school. We used to wander the neighborhood. We just ran through the neighborhood after school till we heard the dinner bell,” he remembered. “After school, you’d take a trip down to the Star and you’d get a pack of Bazooka Joe chewing gum with baseball cards in the packet.”

More vintage Star Grocery signs from its archive upstairs. Credit: Elise Proulx

“Star Grocery is kind of the heartbeat of the neighborhood,” he said.

Dorothy Kropf now lives in Sonora, California. She grew up in the Claremont and has fond memories of Star Grocery and encountering Jim Pappas in the 1950s.

“Just like in the pictures, it looked like an old country store; it wasn’t fancy at all,” she said. “Mr. Pappas was always there, always happy, always smiling, he could never do enough for you and was very sincere. He treated his employees like gold.”

Kropf should know: Her grandmother, Emma Willis, worked for him. “Because Gram was there and it was just about halfway between my house and John Muir School, we went past it every day,” she said. “Sometimes I’d even help Gram help stock shelves and Mr. Pappas would give me a dollar.”

Kropf should know: Her grandmother, Emma Willis, worked for him. “Because Gram was there and it was just about halfway between my house and John Muir School, we went past it every day,” she said. “Sometimes I’d even help Gram help stock shelves and Mr. Pappas would give me a dollar.”

“As a kid, what I remember is the warmth, the welcome, the kindness to me as a child by Mr. Pappas and all the workers there,” said Ani-Mac McLaren, who lived in the neighborhood from 1950 to 1967 and now lives in North Berkeley.

“Mr. Pappas’ eyes twinkled and he was the sweetest man. I remember just knowing he was helping families who couldn’t pay for their groceries. I was aware of that.”

“I shopped there as a kid with my mom. She was comfortable there,” McLaren said. “The times I’ve gone there since I grew up, I’m always happy to have a reason to go there, and Mr. Pappas’ son [Nick], he kind of looks like his dad, he has that same sparkly eyes sweetness.”

A customer shopping the aisles at Star Grocery. Credit: Pete Rosos

Even 100 years on, Star Grocery occupies a special place in the community. Those both old and new to the neighborhood find it to be a bit of a sanctuary from the rush of the modern world.

“Well, of course, there’s much more in the way of the really nice, high end stuff available,” said Anjali Sundaram, who was two years behind current owner Nick at school. “But [Star Grocery] hasn’t really changed that much.”

Check out The Elmwood Claremont Neighborhood Association‘s website for a full Star Grocery timeline.

Outside Star Grocery in 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos