By Cindy Hadish/for the Corridor Business Journal
Curtis Odom was happy to buy bacon and a dozen eggs during a quick stop not far from his home in northwest Cedar Rapids.
The North Liberty business owner had driven by the Cultivate Hope Corner Store, 604 Ellis Blvd. NW, almost daily in his commute, and finally had an opportunity to take a look at the fresh meats, produce and more when the store opened this month.
“This is super convenient,” the 25-year-old said. “It’s a great asset to the community.”
Serving the community is exactly why the nonprofit Matthew 25 purchased the building at the corner of Ellis Boulevard and E Avenue NW.
For years, the building sat vacant and the site became what Clint Twedt-Ball, executive director of Matthew 25, described as the “highest crime corner in the neighborhood.”
The Corner Store is the nonprofit’s latest initiative since its inception in 2006 to renew Time Check and other neighborhoods on the west side of Cedar Rapids, which kicked into high gear after record flooding devastated the area in 2008.
Twedt-Ball said building renovations for the Corner Store were funded through a $1.4 million capital campaign, which is nearing its goal after just one year.
“This is one of those things that people are excited about,” he said, citing filling a need in the neighborhood’s “food desert” and as an economic development tool to revitalize the area. “People saw it as unique enough that they stepped up and supported it.”
Fresh vegetables and other produce from Matthew 25’s Cultivate Hope Urban Farm, located nearby, will be sold at the store, Twedt-Ball said. Peanut butter, household products, canned foods, spices, cheese, beer and wine are among a wide variety of other items available there.
Even now, apples, potatoes, garlic, bananas, avocados and other fruits and vegetables take center stage in the store, which had its soft opening April 6, with a grand opening planned for Wednesday, April 27.
The opening would have been last fall, if not for a 6-month delay in needed refrigeration equipment, Twedt-Ball noted, but other challenges, such as finding workers, have not been as much of an issue, though they are still seeking a team leader.
Most of the 10 employees live in the area, he said, including Pete Chihak, 66, who frequently stopped by the building during renovations to check on its progress.
“I just started asking about it,” said Chihak, who had retired from his job as a painting company sales representative before starting his first foray in the grocery world. “They’re hoping to improve the neighborhood. That’s what intrigued me.”
Chihak remembers similar local grocery stores that dotted Cedar Rapids neighborhoods for decades.
“A lot of customers are people who walk here,” he said, bringing the store back to its roots.
The brick building opened around 1920 as a grocery store owned by William and Ida Hosmer before serving as the Ellis Boulevard Grocery & Market, operated by immigrant Thomas Shaheen and his wife, Sophia, starting in 1933. After Thomas Shaheen’s death, their children operated the store.
“The Hosmer building represented a shift of corner stores in Time Check relocating and building newer structures along Ellis Boulevard NW in the years following Ellis Park becoming an official city park,” Cedar Rapids Historian Mark Stoffer Hunter said, citing the period when Ellis Boulevard – formerly called Seventh Street NW – became the main drive to the park.
Douglas and Mamie Shaheen, who met at the Ellis Boulevard Grocery as eighth-graders and married after Douglas served in World War II, owned and operated Shaheen Sundries, a grocery store and food counter at the site, according to an account of the family’s history.
It later housed a variety of businesses, including a bar in more recent history.
Mark Elias, a fourth-generation grocer, was brought into Matthew 25 to bring the store back to its origins as a neighborhood grocery.
Elias now serves as senior director of Cultivate Hope and manages the Corner Store, training new employees, some of whom have never worked in retail.
His great-grandfather, an immigrant from Lebanon, was a peddler before opening a general store in western Iowa, where subsequent generations of the family worked until 1989, when his father died.
Their family store, Elias Super Market, looked strikingly similar to the 2,500-square-foot Corner Store, Elias noted, adding that his siblings have said their parents would be proud of his latest efforts.
Operating the grocery store as a nonprofit allows Matthew 25 to offer free produce to people in need, educational classes and other services, he said, even as they work to overcome issues as a tiny entity in an industry dominated by chain stores.
As an example, Elias cited bakeries that supply bread to larger groceries, with trucks driving by the Corner Store on a regular basis.
Supplying smaller quantities of baked goods was not deemed as cost-effective for the bread companies, he said, but that led to a relationship with Amana Colonies Bakery & Cafe, which now provides bread, cookies, kolaches and other items to the store, at reasonable prices.
Other local products, such as cheese curds from Dan and Debbie’s Creamery in Ely, can also be found in the store, along with prepared soup and healthy meals-to-go from Matthew 25’s Groundswell Cafe.
Al Pierson, owner of Pierson’s Flower Shop & Greenhouses, 1800 Ellis Blvd. NW, said he remembers riding his bike to similar “mom-and-pop” stores during his youth.
“We’ve been looking for something like this for a long time,” said Pierson, who serves as president of the Northwest Neighbors Neighborhood Association. “We’ve embraced it.”
He cited residents with transportation issues who can now walk to the store for healthy foods and other necessities.
“It’s so important to the neighborhood,” Pierson said. “This really is a strong foothold for the community.”
Cultivate Hope Corner Store, 604 Ellis Blvd. NW, is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sundays.
A grand opening on Wednesday, April 27, includes a ribbon-cutting at 7:45 a.m.; special discounts in the store and a celebration from 4-7 p.m., with free food samples, children’s activities, giveaways and more. A short program to thank donors will be at 5 p.m.
For more information, see: www.hub25.org/cornerstore
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