When his daughter was an infant, Ayman Sulaiman came home one day to find expired vouchers from the federally funded Women, Infants and Children program. When he asked his wife about them, she cried and explained the humiliation she experienced at their local grocery store when trying to take advantage of the supplemental nutrition program.

It was 1993, the couple lived and worked in San Francisco, and Sulaiman was attending college. He accompanied his wife to the store and witnessed what he said was unfair treatment from both the clerk and manager, but the business-savvy college student saw a huge need for stores that catered to the families and children served by WIC.

"It was just degrading," said Sulaiman, who studied computer science at UC Berkeley and Heald College and worked in Silicon Valley. "I knew that I was doing my best to improve our lives, and everyone was staring at us. I knew there was a niche for WIC clients at that point."

WIC provides a variety of food staples each month to low-income and working-class pregnant or breast-feeding women, infants and children younger than 5 who are not meeting certain nutritional guidelines. It started in 1972 when the federal government recognized that low-income women and children were suffering from malnutrition and to supplement food stamps.

Today, Sulaiman leads the largest co-op of WIC specialty stores in Northern California, with 45 stores under the Baby Nutritional Care name and double that number helping smaller neighborhood WIC markets that were struggling with marketing, operations and inventory.

That number will grow with a store opening in Brentwood this week and openings in Vallejo, Richmond, Hayward and San Pablo later this summer.

Sulaiman's first store was an old San Francisco flower shop that he bought on a whim more than a decade ago for $5,000 while getting a bouquet for his wife who was pregnant with their second child. In a few years, he put the store where he and his wife were mistreated out of business with their first WIC store, and started opening stores in Stockton, where he said the city was always supportive and helpful.

Today, at least 60 percent of vouchers statewide are redeemed at WIC specialty stores instead of general grocery stores or big-box retailers that also carry food through the governmental program.

"We help the consumer to be educated on WIC-approved items," said Sulaiman's business partner, Dave Douglas. "Getting a WIC voucher is like getting a prescription. It is important that we source products that meet the WIC standards."

The Baby Nutritional Care stores aim to make the shopping experience less stressful and more pleasant for WIC clients by hiring bilingual and knowledgeable staff who know the WIC guidelines, carrying all or most of the WIC-approved food items, and catering primarily to WIC clients.

WIC clients say they often face rude comments, stares and scrutiny from both customers and employees in traditional grocery locations in addition to poor customer service and ignorance about the WIC program.

Antioch resident Raquel Cardenas works at the Pittsburg store and knows the ins and outs of WIC as a recipient for her 3-year-old daughter. The 21-year-old recalled one shopping experience when she selected the wrong baby formula and had to return to the traditional grocery store for an exchange.

"The clerk was so rude, and she wouldn't exchange it for me," she said. "That is why people really like it here. We are polite. A lot of guys come in here too because we help them out, and we are helpful."

Cardenas said customers come all the way from Brentwood for quality customer service and a quick checkout. Amid the seasonal fruit and whole-grain options are ethnic food items, including tofu, black-eyed peas and various beans and lentils.

"This is the best thing ever," said Pittsburg resident Monique Smith, who is raising her 3-year-old grandson and receives WIC to supplement their groceries. "It is much more convenient than a grocery store. They take too long to ring up your items at a grocery store, and they don't know enough about WIC."

The chain also tries to make the shopping experience easier for parents and fun for children, with cartoon characters on the walls, free candy and play areas.

Amid the Gerber cereals and baby food in these stores is the Early On brand, an all-natural and preservative-free baby food line created by Baby Nutritional Care. The gluten-free, certified kosher baby food was launched last year, and is now also sold in Food 4 Less stores.

"We pack from fresh fruit. Most national brands are packed from puree," said Douglas, who previously worked for Hansen Beverage Company.

The Early On brand started more than a year ago with baby food and will expand with next month's launch of a handful of dry cereals and oatmeal, followed by bread, milk and cheese later this year.

"We are the Whole Foods or Trader Joes of WIC," Sulaiman said.

The baby food is made with California produce; the milk will be packed in Richmond; the company's main distribution center is in Manteca; and most of the other products are manufactured in the state as well.

Sulaiman is proud to be producing jobs in a down economy throughout California, and he now calls the Central Valley home as a resident of Ripon.

Baby Nutritional Care hopes to garner the same type of brand loyalty with the Early On label as brands such as Gerber and Beech Nut.

"Our strategy is that a person on WIC won't be on WIC forever," Sulaiman said.

Customers at Baby Nutritional Care stores also receive additional products when they obtain the Early On brand through clever packaging based on the WIC item limits.

Sulaiman also intentionally situates many of his stores near WIC offices and public transportation for convenience.

"We now have a five-year plan to make our stores synonymous with WIC," he said. "It has been an amazing journey."

STORE LOCATIONS
East Bay Baby Nutritional Care store locations
3025 Foothill Blvd., Oakland
2630 International Blvd.,
Oakland
900 Market St. # A, Oakland
7351 Brentwood Blvd., Suite F, Brentwood
2344 Stanwell Circle, Concord
1295 E. Leland Road, Pittsburg
32970 Alvarado Niles Road #752, Union City
39180 State St., Fremont
917 North Central Ave., Tracy