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East End Grocery: Oasis in a desert

04/09/2018 8:00 AM by

The Grocery Store: Meet the people who are building an oasis in our neighborhood.

This is the first of a series of articles on the upcoming East End Grocery Store. We wanted to first introduce you to the players and the reasons why they’re motivated to run a grocery store in our neighborhood. We think this is important in setting the tone for what’s coming. In the next several weeks we’ll be talking about the expectations, the history, the name, the offerings and cost and much more.

Let’s begin with a closer look at the players. Starting with Norm Gold.

Norm Gold is the former Chief Operating Officer at FeedMore. He comes from a long background of grocery store work, both in the for-profit sector and non-profit sector. “He’s the guy who knows how to run a grocery store and he’s the guy that’s charged with operating the grocery store,” says Melissa Brooks, associate professor at J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College Community. “I thought that this quote from the Richmond Times Dispatch was really interesting to set the tone for Norm and what he’s going to bring to the discussion– the best advice he ever received: “Be careful to always listen to your staff, don’t assume anything.” By listening and hearing from the community, Norm Gold and his team have shown a commitment and investment in our community.

Mike Maruca is Norm’s partner, focusing on community engagement. “I always tell people if I had to choose five people to be in the foxhole with me in like nuclear winter or something, Mike is one of those people”. Mike is the head of school at the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School which is a tuition-free independent school on North 29th street, right between Woodville Elementary and Creighton Court.

Why a grocery store at this point in your career?

Back in 1972, I started in the grocery business, Southern California bagging groceries for Lucky stores. Been in the grocery business for 24 years. After 24 years I decided I wanted to make a different, second career in my life and went into food banking. Been doing food banking for 20 years starting in Phoenix, Arizona. I’ve done food banking in Phoenix, Miami, Ohio, Montana. I also do work in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. I’m on the board for Second Harvest Asia. Food banking is my life and my passion; helping out people, organizations, and communities are my passion. The grocery store is also my passion. I’m able to do both my passion together in my final career. My final career is going to be this: creating a store in Church Hill. One that’s been talked about for decades I guess, but hasn’t been successful. It’s not going to be easy I can tell you that.

Why hasn’t there been a grocery store in this area?

There’s a reason why chains don’t go into this area. They can’t make it. It’s not going to be a huge profit maker. Wegmans and Kroger are going to go into an area identified where they’re going to make some money. They’re going to hold off on going into a smaller community where there are mixed incomes. They won’t come in here and that’s why there hasn’t been one, or there hasn’t been a successful one, in decades. We’re fortunate because we have Steven and Kathy Markel. They’re the investors that are putting this together. They’re in it because they want to help out the community. They don’t want to make money on this. They’re not here to make a profit. That’s what sold me.

What are some of the amenities you’d like to have in the store?

The store’s going to have a VCU Health and Wellness Center adjacent to it. It’s going to have the Sergeant Reynold’s Culinary School across the street from it. We’re looking at putting in a bank and a pharmacy. We’re trying to work on finding a couple of them now. We want to have services there that everybody wants to see.

What is the involvement of Steve and Kathy Markel?

It seems to extraordinarily rare that some folks would bring resources like they’re bringing to a community. As far as I know from my interactions with Steve I think he would be just as happy to fade into the background and never have his name mentioned. That’s the kind of person he is. That makes it even more extraordinary of a potential asset in the community. It’s a wonderful thing that they’re doing. More than anything they just want it to be a community asset for all of Church Hill. In addition, when the store does turn a profit, they will put it into the community.

How are you coping with some of the challenges that people are bringing up? There are a lot of expectations about the store.

I think there’s also going to be a temptation on the part of many of us to bring maybe an inordinate amount of hope, or expectation, or whatever it might be that we each as individuals carry within us and put it on that grocery store. I think we have to try and steer in-between the reality of this being such a wonderful, wonderful opportunity and soon to be in less than a year a reality, and then also to try and keep it in perspective as well. You don’t want this store to bear the weight of all of our expectations.

One of the things I think about are who are going to be the key employees working there? Who are the people who are going to have that real sense of ownership? Like this is their baby that they’re taking care of – who give it this unique feel and sense of welcome and being at home. People who are invested in it and are supported by it. This is an extraordinary opportunity in a neighborhood like this for employment for quite a few folks. The numbers I’ve heard are as many as 60.

What are the specs of the store? Like how big is it?

The store is going to be 25,000 square feet which is about half a size of a Publix. It’s really important we hear what everybody wants to see in the store from the people who live in Mosby and Creighton Court, from the millennials, from the middle class. Everyone of every income needs to have feedback on what they want to see and what they don’t want to see. That’ll help us create the store. Find out what it is.

So neighbors, let’s start thinking about what kind of store you’d want.

  • What kind of services do you want to see?
  • What kind of food do you want to see?
  • Do you want to see sushi?
  • Do you want to see hot foods ready to go?
  • Do you want to have a Blue Apron kind of thing where you can come in and take a meal home and prepare it there?
  • What conveniences do you want to see?

Sound off in the comments!

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