Tuesday, August 12, 2008

If You Could Stock Your Own Corner Store...

My neighborhood convenience store has asked the local civic league for a list of grocery items that would help them change their client base as they renovate the market's building (see my list after my rhetoric). Currently, the place sells the standard stuff that every other corner-store carries: candy, lottery tickets, chips, single bottle malt liquor and fortified wine, single blunt cigars, and generic processed and packaged foods with a sizable mark-up. Does this assignment sound exciting to anyone? How would you stock your own neighborhood store? Would you want gourmet items or staples?. Does "convenience" hold the same definition for everyone?

The store has been there for 27 years. From the looks of it, some of the canned goods may be that old as well. The corner is a daily hangout for drunks and panhandlers as well as some really nice folks. Crack and heroine deals take place sporadically but brazenly in broad daylight, and it's just two blocks from the 3rd precinct police department. People say that the owners are anxious to change the atmosphere, but those who've witnessed the history say that the place has always been a hot spot and that the owners have always been complicit.

My biggest pet peeve is the constant barrage of litter that emanates from the store's customers. It sounds trivial compared to the intimidation that women feel as they approach the intersection, but the visual "crapification" by consumer waste brands the surrounding blocks as derelect and dangerous (insert obligatory "broken windows theory" reference here) and it's just plain unnecessary. These patterns are probably documented by thousands of communities, but this situation actually has an opening for public input. What do you think? Can we tackle the social issues at the same time as the commercial issues?

You are invited to help me make a list to pass on to the civic league and market owners. You are also welcome to chime in with your take on the ethics and/or effectiveness of this approach. I'm not a decision-maker here, just a citizen, but this forum will probably make a difference one way or another. Maybe you think it would make sense for the store owners to conduct a survey of current customers, in the interest of equity. That way it wouldn't be a simple swapping of lower socio-economic class of clients with the growing white middle class demographic of the neighborhood. Maybe there's a way to balance community interests here (although hopefully with less litter and drug trade). Since this is Byrd Park I'm talking about, is there a "community blog" that serves this region?

So far, here's what I've come up with (thanks in part to America's Test Kitchen's "Buying Guide for Supermarket ingredients")*:

  • half and half
  • Eight O'Clock coffee (whole bean Colombian variety)
  • tortilla chips (plain Tostino's or Utz, not Doritos)
  • garlic, fresh
  • frozen shrimp and fish in factory sealed bags
  • distro site for CSA produce shares and surplus sales
  • frozen pizzas (Tombstone and Freshetta)
  • tortillas (flour and corn)
  • breads, Pepperidge Farm rolls, sliced whole wheat, etc
  • energy efficient light bulbs
  • bread crumbs, Progresso
  • nothing passed its sell by date
  • BBQ sauce, Bulls Eye Original
  • soy milk, Silk plain
  • salsa, Pace
  • hire someone to pick up litter from store's products
  • butter, Land O'Lakes
  • frozen meat, whatever yall like
  • cream cheese, Philladelphia
  • bagged salads and greens
  • olive oil, Davinci or Colavita or Berio
  • email specials to those who sign up
  • pasta, Barilla or Muellers
  • pasta sauce, Barilla or Bertolli
  • ice cream, Turkey Hill vanilla bean or neopolitan
  • rice, white, brown, and basmati
  • better lighting and later hours
  • kosher salt, Morton's
  • canned tomatoes, Redgold and Muir Glen
  • tomato paste
  • various organic/natural products (Amy's frozen meals)
  • Morningstar Farm's fozen fake bacon/sausage/etc
  • cheese, shredded various varieties
  • Yeungling lager in 12 packs
  • stay open on Sundays

Plenty of these are already on the shelves at most convenience stores. Others would be problematic because they have a short shelf life. I think the kind of thing that is needed here are those items that come up between big grocery store trips. Stuff you run out of when you don't realize you're almost out.

Okay, let's here from Richmond...

*Brand names listed for items where a higher quality can be purchased for relatively similar price as other brands.


  1. The question would be that i they went upscale would anyone go with the European market just a couple of blocks away. While they may have been complicit in attracting a certain type of customer the owners must be aware of the gentrification going on through that area and realize that if they don't cater to the new-comers they won't survive.

    If they were really trying to change their image they should look at the 'gourmet' gas stations out in the far west end. There's also a really good Texaco station in C'ville that has converted their mini-mart into a high end sandwich shop. Fresh cut meats, breads, and veggies will draw people from wide and far if done right.

    Oh, and they should probably stop selling the 40-ounce bottles of beer... Does anyone but the 'wrong' element drink those?

  2. Diesel10:41 AM

    Anything that saves me a trip to Kroger. Milk and eggs for a start. Bacon, sausage, cereal, butter. Beyond that, a little section of decent cheeses and bread would hit the spot (some brought in from a local bakery would be nice on the weekends, yeah?). Bananas, tomatoes. Decent beer, and by that I mean Sam Adams, Blue Moon, Dale's, Bass, nothing too wacky. If I want a Belgian lambic or a cave-aged beer, I know where to get it.
    GOOD and not-expensive coffee such as Cafe Bustelo. And the obligatory barrel of pickles.

    The thing we all have to remember is that alcohol and tobacco are high-margin products and they are what keep corner stores in business. If the owners of West End Market go to all the trouble to listen to us and cater to our needs, for goodness sake, let's remember to patronize the store.

  3. Anonymous10:59 AM

    I tend to go organic, so I may be destined to make those car trips to ETs. But if they stocked fresh local or organic eggs (and the 6 egg cartons are good)--if they could sell them in time--I'd start hopping down there.
    And sour cream as well as Total yogurt--I cook with these often. Canned, chopped green chilis (El Paso) as well as whole Jalapenos.
    A few fresh onions. Pacifico chicken broth. These are the sort of things I run out of. And yes, I'm one who won't go inside, although I live 1 block away.

  4. I REALLY like hearing about people's shopping habits. This feedback so far is really satisfying. I for one am not so interested in a high-end store akin to the European Market or Ellwoods. Even the Rennies on Main in the Fan is strictly gas-station munchies. Quality products and consciencious decisions are my biggest motivation.

    A better model (in my mind) might be the Strawberry Street Market, but that place is so overtly yuppy, it's not really to my taste (still
    carrying a torch for Price's Market before it). Nonetheless, it's not
    my store and it may never reflect the priorities of EVERY potential
    customer. So, take my comments as one among many.

    Market-driven forces have always ensured that people can make a fortune peddling the products of social illness. It's opportunism at its worst. But even the existing clients probably would like to see the store stocking different stuff. I hope that an effort is made to include more people than the civic league and bloggers. If we want to see an end to the single bottles/blunts sales then we'd have to get the space zoned differently (right?). And then, we'd have to make a point of shopping there as another commenter reminded us. Keep this going, please.

  5. Anonymous12:55 PM

    I'm glad to see that people understand that West End Market is a business and naturally the owners want to make money. So if the owners want to make money and change clientele they are faced with which should come first the chicken or the egg?

    Sunday I sent out a mass email about the details of the meeting because I believe that the neighborhood can control the outcome of the store just by becoming patrons. If more people are walking out of the store with milk and eggs less people will be walking out with paper bags containing large cans.
    For now, I think we can abandon hope that the store is going to change from a convenience store to some kind of gourmet market, it just didn't seem like the owner was interested in taking that big of leap.
    The one thing I know is that she is interested in spending money on the building to make it look and serve the community better plus she will add two other store fronts that could be leased to a dry cleaners or deli and that would bring more business to our neighborhood. I'm just trying to encourage everyone to make one visit and buy one item...at least it's a start.

  6. In 2005, when I first went into the store, I was looking for a six pack of beer and some chips. They had Bud, Miller, Michelobe and various singles. I asked the man at the counter if they would consider stocking Yuengling Lager and he made a note. It's been there when I wanted it ever since. I didn't press my luck over the chips, but maybe it's time to go in and ask for plain tortilla chips.

    If there will be additional meetings with the owner about the future of the market, I'd be interested in attending. If they're simply asking for an influx of new customers to pay for future renovations, I don't know if that part of the neighborhood is going to become appealing to newcomers without some serious effort.

  7. I am glad to see there is interest in getting that store changes... I wish did not have to move out... I visited the store once during my 5 years in Byrd Park and that was to get a 12 pack of beer... the store to me had a dirty type feel to it... I think if they did a bit of remodeling inside, maybe not carry so many knick-knacks and focus on a wider variety of chips and beers and few more other foods that you listed, it would make a world of difference... the key is to get it feeling like a store for everyone... and also try to get the bad elements from hanging outside the store... that was the biggest deterent for me... I did not feel safe walking anywhere near the store... that is the big hurdle... it sounds like she is willing to make product changes, but you have to get in the store to be able to purchase those products... clean up the mess around the building to make it more appealing...

  8. Davis Market (across the street from the Police Station on Grace) is pretty well-stocked. When I lived on 2nd I liked going there or to Nick's.

  9. Jason9:06 PM

    I bought my place near Rosewood and Davis in 2004, and it would be really convenient if West End Market was a viable option. However, I have never felt safe on idlewood. The apartments the next block east are a real deterrent.

    She would have to alienate most of her current client-base to attract a new breed of customers, and that would mean not selling her high-profit margin items, as mentioned already (no 40s)... Most of the convenience stores in the Fan (along Lombardy, etc) cater to college students and sell items like pre-made sandwiches, brownies, cookies, and junk fook (and beer!). I'm not so sure those items would sell on such a low traffic street. Our demographic is quite diverse socioeconomically and in age, but I think the list you came up with is a good start.

  10. Anonymous11:31 PM

    Wine (good stuff)
    A comprehensive newsstand
    24 hour deli

    Let the 7-Elevens sell lottery tickets and bread and milk.

    Be unique.

  11. Nice Rus. You've got a strong business model there. But uniqueness may not be on the menu when lowest common denominator has always been the specialty. I'll admit that a few spirits did come to mind when composing my list though. Sadly, the ABC laws would probably be a barrier. You'll have to settle for Thunderbird and 211 Steel Reserve in the meantime.

    My wife won't walk through that intersection to get to the store either. Not by herself. But I've been in dozens of times. When I needed beans for my huevos rancheros on Saturday, they had'em. Today, I strapped my infant on with a sling and headed in there to pay $5 for off-brand ice cream (got plenty of stares for bringing my baby through there). As a loyal customer, I don't think I owe the store any more than I'm currently giving considering the negative impact that the place has on the neighborhood's atmosphere.

    How about this: When Gordon Ramsey takes a restaurant in a new direction (sorry, but this is a sort of food blog), they hold some kind of publicity stunt, like a parade, to spread the word. How about if the West End Market does some of it's own PR work and tries reaching out and establishing trust directly? They could go door to door soliciting suggestions for grocery items that they should stock. They could sponsor litter pick-up efforts or a charity event. Having missed their appearance at the Saturday meeting, I'm not clear how much of this effort they're putting on the already stretched thin civic league.

  12. My Food Dog has been going through a remodeling and the furrin food area has expanded greatly.. I can now walk over and get bean varieties that I could only get at La Mipa, etc. Frijoles like Mayocoba, Flor De Mayo, & Bayos, as well as Queretaro Frijoles negros, pintos, rosados, dried favas & Morelos short grain rice. One can also get a tortilla press and granite-ware enameled pots/cazuelas.

    I'll still need to hit La Mipa for cabrito, chorizo, and hearts of palm.

    And the South Asian/Middle Eastern section is quite good, too.

  13. So you doctrinaire yupsters won't allow Foster's oil cans or the Sapporo 22-ozers? (That "cute" Sapporo can was designed by the clever Japanese for the Sailor Moon/ Hello Kitty teenaged girl demographic, BTW.)

  14. Anonymous9:26 AM

    To RVAFoodie, I understand that you are already a customer of the store and you want to see the owner take on more responsibility for the derelict corner and you don't want to see the "already stretched thin civic league" have to do any more than they are already doing and I understand where you are coming from but this has to be a commitment made by the entire community and not just a few.
    And let me clarify that this meeting was held mostly on the front porch of the round house because no one showed up to unlock the door, so this meeting wasn't even attended by the "stretched thin" civic league and it isn't another responsibility on them it's really an effort started and supported by the residents.
    Secondly, the owner Sunny, was sincere in her proposal to invest in changing her store because she stated that one of her options was to unload the property. If she does decide to unload the property then we may have an owner who isn't going to invest in any improvements. So this is Byrd Park's opportunity to motivate the owner into improvements by supporting her. If we demand that she be responsible for all the improvements without the help of the residents then we may be blowing an opportunity to have what we all want and that's a safe, clean store that enhances our neighborhood. This effort is going to take a village and we aleady have residents giving their support so let's keep in going.
    Kim/Maplewood Av

  15. Diesel12:29 PM

    I'm glad you started this thread. I'd love to see someone with VCU's Urban Planning department weigh in.
    I've been fascinated with corner grocery stores since I was a kid. Whenever we visited my grandparents in their 1920s neighborhood in Roanoke, we'd get some change to take down to the corner to buy a Zero bar and a Coke (this was in the 1970s). It stocked basics -- milk, bread, eggs, laundry detergent, coffee, soda, meats, corn flakes. Living in the shiny new Brady Bunch suburbs as I did, I was amazed that such a place existed within walking distance. This store was smaller than West End Market, basically the first floor of a foursquare house, but the owner made a good living selling to the neighborhood. That was much easier to do in the 1940s and 50s, when supermarkets didn't exist and a head of boiled cabbage was dinner most nights of the week. With our current preponderance of disposable income, mobility and a massive retail food and restaurant industry competing for our dollars, it's easy to see why the corner store is gone as a basic grocery seller. People can find more variety and a lower price at a bigger store; the tradeoff is they have to drive to get to it. Even if the corner store could compete on price, it still wouldn't make a lot of sense to sell mostly groceries because it's such a low-margin game. Even the big grocers barely break even on most food items. They have to price things like eggs, milk and bread attractively to get people in the door in the hopes they they'll buy money-makers like soda, beer and tobacco, patio furniture, gas grills and leather jackets. The Fan is dotted with neighborhood stores that are now restaurants and real estate offices. It's a numbers game -- how can you make the most money with the square footage you have? That's why I fear that if Sunny sells out, we won't have a market at all. But for her to stay open, it's going to be a tightrope walk to attract new customers, who have to be willing to pay more for staple items in return for the convenience factor, while stocking high-margin items like gourmet foods and decent beer and wine that are going to appeal to a fairly small group of people who could also buy those things elsewhere. And let's keep in mind that, best-case scenario, this is going to be a neighborhood market no matter what. No one will cross the expressway from the Fan to shop here unless the store became something so spectaculary unique as to be irresistable -- not likely. So her customer base is going to be relatively small and she is going to have to sell a lot of stuff to stay open. I don't know if it will be enough if she gets rid of the items that currently make money for the store (and make that corner a rough little place). So, the question we have to ask ourselves is, are we willing to pay more for convenience? How much more? On the flipside, the world is changing, the neighborhood is changing, and people want local and mini, not distant and mega and that works to the store's advantage. And it's quite likely that Sunny will be shocked by how much more overall business she does in a renovated, clean and attractive building.
    So, I'm in. I've never been in the story, but soon I'll go scope it out and see which things I need that I can buy from her on a regular basis as a show of my support.

  16. As an area beer blogger, I'd have to push the better beer issue here as well. Domestics like Sam Adams, Brooklyn Brewery, Sierra Nevada, and Anchor would be logical places to start for widely-appreciated quality beer with a large distribution range. If you want to get even closer geographically, then Starr Hill (out of Charlottesville) and Legend (out of the good ol' state capital here) are obvious choices. Even the Samuel Smith's lineup from the UK, which is actually already available at many small markets in the Fan oddly enough, would be a good call for them to stock.

    Some, like Patterson Express and Lombardy Market, stock the aforementioned as well as some other esoteric brews by Stone Brewing, Southern Tier, and Wychwood. This may be changing, and it depends upon distributors, but your local corner store could reasonably stock the aforementioned gems, I'd imagine.

    That's the best I can do. Good luck with everything else!

  17. jolie3:58 PM

    check out Shields Market (new ownership) as a model - they have a good product mix with typical convenience store items but a decent selection of some more interesting items. Basically something for everyone - a tad yuppier than it used to be but not too gentrified to be off-putting.

    rva foodie - reading some of your posts on various blogs i've noticed you don't like ellwoods very much. why? i really like the fact that it's a local independent and they sell tons of locally grown and locally made products.

  18. Witnessing this discussion is pretty gratifying and I'm kinda tickled to play host. However, I feel responsible (wrongly, perhaps) for some kind of fascilitation. So far, we have promoted a number of items to the list of useful products for a successful Byrd Park convenience store. Not all are likely or even feasible, but they're worth reviewing:

    -prepared foods (side dishes, sandwiches, Sunny's family recipes might give Fu Jian a run for their money)
    -micro brew and or dark beer, especially local Legend
    -distro more FREE weekly newspapers
    -a security guard
    -onions (they've already got'em by the bag)

    The safety issue has been echoed pretty thoroughly, and I think most residnets know that the apartment building across from the market is a big factor (and probably a whole nuther ball of wax). So the question will probably persist, how do you get people inside if the intersection is too forboding? I think Kim is correct that the problem is much bigger than we can expect the owner to resolve without a wider community effort (civic league or otherwise).

    Jolie: Great input about Shields Market. I've heard from Fan folks that the place is a big hit since they changed their approach. About Ellwoods (feel free to contact me outside this post so we don't derail the discussion), not every change in approach is good. As a proud cheapskate, I practically get the hives when I see ET's astronomical mark-ups on nearly every single item they sell. At some point (I believe), they ditched the promotion of health and sustainability in pursuit of a relatively wealthy target market and the highest prices that narrow but growing market would bear. The store now serves as an example of the elite economic status of ethical dietary choices, reinforcing the inaccessibility of a nutrious organic diet. I guess my big break with ET occured when they spent a fortune hiring a union busting law firm to intimidate their employees out of collective bargaining for improved benefits and labor standards. But, I digress. I still shop there once or twice a year after I get my tax refund. Seriously, let's not go down this road on this post, because I don't wanna detract any further from the converstation. Bottom's Up pizza is also an off-limits topic for me. Don't get me started on that one either. ;0)

  19. Diesel4:57 PM

    One other important thing we need to consider before we get carried away with the idea of a Zabar's On Idlewood:

    West End Market, such as it is, is the grocery store for elderly, fixed income and barely mobile people in our neighborhood. We should always bear that in mind when we discuss our wishes for the property.

    On the topic of organic food stores getting too big for their britches, Matt DeBord had a good piece in yesterday's LA Times about Whole Foods:

  20. Let's remember that Richmond has not supported local businesses very well, especially if it's somewhere to which you would more likely walk than drive and park. That combined with a low population density puts many places out of business. Trolley Market on Main started off offering many of the things mentioned in people's comments, but little by little, they've cut back on everything but beer. Even if someone wanted to gentrify that particular corner store near Byrd Park, I submit that Riohmond's too economically anemic. What's more likely to happen is that the store changes it products and presentation, then goes out of business, leaving Idlewood with less than before.

  21. Hi. I just dropped by to see if you knew that some of you blog content has been republished at www.hlongj.com

    You can see at least one stolen post here -

    They stole a bunch of my posts too.

  22. Stakolee: Very provocative and cynical, but the picture you paint seems pretty realistic. Does anyone care to respond to this critique? Sounds like he's saying that we should buy something other than beer (supporting the inventory we want to see) when we do go to that market. Personally, I'll admit that some chains will make me go further outta my way than an independent. When I heard that Trader Joe's was coming, I didn't bat an eyelash at the distance to Short Pump, just the inevitable traffic headaches.

    But the larger issue is not the type of products on the shelves, but the impact of the store on the neighborhood. Does diversifying the client base of the store reduce the drugs deals, gunshots, drinking, screaming, littering, and other bad behavior that is routine all around that store (and frequently right behind my house)? To play devil's advocate (hate/love to do this), WHAT IF the store wasn't there anymore? The litter and the drinking would probably taper off significantly. Persistent panhandlers would loiter elsewhere. But would people still congregate at the intersection? Most of the commenters here don't shop at the West End Market, so how would it affect most of us if the store closed? Plenty of people do use the store for groceries. What are the other positive attributes (besides Yuengling lager)?

    For those of you who haven't seen the previous Byrd Park discussion posts that I attempted once or twice before. Feel free to check out those links for some additional context.

    Leigh: Weird stuff about my stolen posts. The last time this happened, my food writing wound up interspersed with nudie pictures on some sketchy site. This time it's not so exciting. I would be flattered, but I kinda stole that salsa recipe myself. For the life of me, I can't figure out what kinda racket they're running when they hijack/republish blog posts without attribution (they have ads - that might be all there is to it). Anyhow, another tangent. Thanks for the tip.

  23. I want to clarify something that I feel is missing from this discussion. The owner did not seek out our opinion. My understanding is that Joe Lerch with the City, contacted the Civic League (Michael) for feedback which is standard when processing a special use permit. With that said, it seems that the owner wants to hear our concerns and suggestions for new items. She has decided not to sell the building but proceed with a renovation. ....My thought was interupted so I called Sunny at the market...She is really very pleasant and is going to visit the byrdpark.org site and introduce herself.

  24. Readers/writers: Would any of you be interested in working on a "community blog" that covered the Byrd Park, Maymont, and Randolph neighborhoods? Other examples of these are aggregated at the RVANews.com site. That way, we wouldn't have to use our personal sites for community discussions (like this one). If so, please drop me a line at jasonguard(a)riseup.net and we'll see if there's enough collective volunteerism to responsibly maintain a local online forum.

    Here's the origin of this request:

  25. In case you're not convinced of the value of a community blog, read this:



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