Star Grocery turns 100 Years Old

A 100 Year Anniversary in the CENA Neighborhood.

THE STAR GROCERY turns 100 this year.

When Nick Pappas was asked to tell us the Star Grocery story, he gave us the following (author unknown):

“My father Jim and his two brothers arrived in San Francisco in 1910-1914 as they had an uncle who was already...

here! No stopping in Akron! Their first store was at the intersection of Van Ness and Vallejo - the future site of Henry Africa's bar (1916 until 1922) Jim and his brother Nick operated the Star Grocery together until Nick's passing in 1943. Jim carried on 'till I took over on 1/1/74 and that's it!" Well, it seems that is not all of 'it'! Behind that simple statement lies a wonderful story of one of the Claremont district's landmarks and the family behind it - both in the sense of time and lives touched since its opening in 1922.

The story of Star Grocery is one of our very own stories of how it has taken many, many people to make this wonderful community what it is today. We all ride on the shoulders of those who have gone before us and each month as we tell the story of our history, we can only express our gratitude. Among those for whom we are grateful are the Pappas Family. "In the 1920's the FBI was very against immigration" says our Nick today.

Nick's father was born Demetrious Papakonstandinou in Grameni Oxya North of Athens. He had an uncle already in San Francisco who owned a grocery store so came to work for him in 1914. Demetrious was followed a few years later by his brother, Nick. Demetrious (Jim) and Nick subsequently opened the Star Grocery on Claremont Avenue in 1922 and operated it for 55 years. "We were just two immigrant Greeks who spoke such broken English. People couldn't even read what we wrote on their bills". Jim married a lovey Greek woman, Aglaia Gaye, and they had three children Elaine (Kenallos), Ernest and Nicolaos. When I asked Nick "Have you visited Greece?" he replied, "Yes. In 1963 and there was still no road. We had to go to Grameni Oxya on a donkey!".

In the Berkeley Insider, (July/August 1994), Burt Dragin writes 'The current owner's father and uncle found the available space and plunked down $6,000 ... and by the forties and fifties the store had four delivery trucks, 2,000 customers, and 1,500 charge accounts". Their first store space is where today we have a clothing store on the block and acquired today's space in the 1930's. They made their first deliveries of groceries in wicker baskets and later traveled the area by truck. To this day the Store offers charge accounts to longtime customers who carry a tab. "What's a few more thousand pieces of paper?" asks Nick. There are, however, no more delivery trucks and delivery baskets.

Jim, Aglaia and family moved to EI Camino, just two blocks from the store on Claremont Avenue as Jim did not drive. The first few years were tough, but the brothers managed. The store was open from 6:00 am to 10:00 pm, seven days a week. The depression was hard on the store but the brothers Nick and Jim stuck with their customers. At one point they were carrying a debt that reached about $10,000 a year. Some of the customers were never able to pay back those bills. Nevertheless, in 1949 they were doing well enough to expand the store. Neighbor Betty Cannon-Hall says, "when Mr. Pappas (Nick's father) tallied up the bill, he grabbed a box of candy and said, 'in honor of the baby's first trip to the store'". Like the community around it, the Star Grocery faced difficult times during the depression years, but on Father's Day many of the fathers found a surprise bottle on their doorstep. On Mother’s Day there was a box of mints for the lady of the house. A new mother could always count on a congratulatory telegram and a big bouquet of flowers. "Jimmy Pappas" was known to keep families fed during the great depression. "There's a fierce loyalty to the grocery (Jimmy Pappas) grub-staked many families in the depression" says Julian Hodges who lived across the street from Star. The family is known to have given loans to neighborhood kids waiting for their families pay checks.

The store didn't get refrigeration until the 1930's. In the 1940's there was a staircase in the middle of the store going up to the apartments above and the isles were stacked with cans. "Peas!" says Nick. "They loved peas in a can!" Twining’s tea was considered a specialty. As the popularity of canned goods waned, the store began to reflect the public's desire for frozen goods and the appearance of Sara Lee cakes and cigarettes - they would sell over 200 cartons a week. The Pappas brothers had an orchard in the Napa Valley and brought fresh plums and walnuts to the store until it was closed down in the 1950's, many customers used the electric A- train (complete with wicker seats), that ran up Claremont Avenue and stopped at the intersection with The Uplands. To deal with all the requests for deliveries, the store had 6 telephone lines and 4 delivery trucks to receive and deliver grocery orders.  

In his late 60's the community gave a Testimonial Tribute event for Nick and Gaye at the Claremont Hotel where 700 friends and relatives paid tribute to them. The guests included Berkeley's book of Who's Who. Over 500 additional guests were unable to attend because there was no more room at the inn. A local newspaper reporting on the Testimonial Tribute dinner writes "Jim Pappas didn't just sell groceries ... he dished out humanitarianism over the counter. But the things he did for the people of Berkeley - particularly in the Claremont district - will never be completely told". The newspaper goes on to tell us that there was more taken in at the dinner than used (some $700). "Pappas immediately donated the money to his beloved Greek Orthodox church. Then on a second thought He matched the money with another $700 of his own. Then he had a third thought. He took another $700 of his own money and split it in donations to the blind children, cerebral palsy, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and St. John's and St. Clément’s churches".

The generosity of the Pappas family was felt far and wide. Not only did they support families who came to the Star Grocery, but Jim became known in the East Bay for many years as "everybody's favorite grocer". Jim died at the age of 81 and in his obituary the San Francisco
Chronicle wrote in July 1977 "His contributions to his native village in Greece, where he got only as far as the fourth grade, helped build a new town square, church, grammar school and High School. He was also one of the major contributors to the building fund for the Greek Orthodox Church of the Ascension in the Oakland hills".

To continue where I left off with the Star Grocery story, I will have to try to bring to you the humorous voice of Nikolaos Papas himself.

Nick remembers:

 1972 - My first year in groceries and we celebrated our 50th Anniversary in 30-degree weather. Took turns going outside to warm up.

1975 - The Christmas I got hooked on torrone until the ants discovered it too. Also, first holiday season for Dickie, Cindy and Manual. Valued store employees, store enters new                 golden age.

1977 - Holiday decorations revolutionized as we go from garland and streamers to my favorite, a herd of camels.

1982 - Store remodeling began in October. Customers very patient as disarray continued into
            December. Having the brie in the coke case was very tacky.

1987 - Claremont at the Uplands Association lights up the block.

            HARRIS GALLERY at 2842 Prince

            DANE OLSEN & ASSOCIATES at 3032

            SWEET TRAVEL at 3036

            HEAD QUARTERS at 3040

            CLAREMONT ANTIQUES at 3042

            NORTHGATE PHARMACY at 3048

            STAR GROCERY and SCALISE MEATS at 3068
            BERNICE DINWIDDIE INC, Woman's Apparel at 3076
            HAIMOVITCH/ASSOCIATES at 3078

In 1992 Nick writes "I've been here twenty years! We are talking 1972, like the dark ages of groceries before spring mix and arugula, before pesto and pasta, fresh OJ, designer bread, micro-breweries, before electronic scales. Chardonnay was a world view more than a beverage, ... at that time, after a long day of combat groceries, I thought high living was a highball (that's bourbon and 7-up and ice in a flower vase) and an avocado with salt for hors d'oeuvres Of course, I was always behind the times gastronomically by light years and relied on Cindy, Irene, and Wendy and Lydia to bring my little store into the modern world". The same year was Star Grocery's 70th anniversary - with the advertisement "over 10 million customers served - 70 years x 320 days x 450 customers per day!".

In 2002 Star Grocery celebrated its 80th year in the neighborhood with a party and a special gift for loyal customers. It was the unveiling of the store's red and blue neon sign, which was re-lit after going dark in the mid-1970's. Customers had raised $5,300 to restore the sign and the party to go along with it. Nick was thrilled by all the excitement and the neighborhood's recognition of the Star Grocery. "It's just great to have a chance to work and live in the community I grew up in" he said at the time. When the 80th anniversary took place Gardner Combs (who was Nick's junior high school classmate, lived on Benvenue, and bought his kite string there when he was a boy), was still shopping at Star.

Our Nick's relationships with his customers span much of his lifetime and go back to the mid 1950's when his father, Jim, and uncle Nick ran the store. Nick has run the store since 1974. He has become known for employing neighborhood kids when many local parents don’t want to see them working at Safeway for their first jobs. Like a local glue, Star is a reflection of the community as year after year young people worked there and families grow up around it. There was stiff grocery store competition in the 1950’s as Sid’s grocery became todays Whole Foods, and in 1964 Safeway opened at Claremont and College. That did it. Nick decided then to focus on being a neighborhood store.

Today, the shelves are filled with local produce and specialty items like chutneys and an overwhelming variety of chocolate. The cans and frozen goods take up less shelf space. “People have re-discovered fresh and organic foods, and wine has become cool”, says Nick. “Fresh orange juice sounds like a minor thing, but it’s a big change in how people consume” he says, as does having 22 different kinds of olive oil, instead of two”. The store has items from many cottage industries such as granolas, raviolis, and sourkrout (now $8.99/jar where it used to be 69 cents). Other ‘overwhelming’ items are the beer and bread selections. When asked if the store specifically ever imported Greek food, Nick replied “we didn’t import Greek food – we imported people”

As the San Francisco Chronicle said at the 80th birthday of the Star Grocery, “a trip to (Star) is more like a visit to a friend’s house than a shopping trip because over the years it’s become one of the common threads that binds the community. Some people spend as much time visiting as they do shopping”.

Nick is now 76 years old (as of Jan. 2022) and we wish him good health and many more years of happily serving the residents of the Claremont Elmwood neighborhood. 

Showing 2 reactions

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  • Cheryl Eccles
    Wonderful story. Thank you for sharing. Nick and Star Grocery have been the glue to our community for the 23.5 years we’ve lived in the neighborhood. Our daughter worked at Star throughout high school. We are in the store at least 4-6 times per week. I know we have something truly special with Star Grocery—I so appreciate raising our children here.
  • Dean Metzger