Downtown grocery will be delicious
People moving into new downtown housing projects in the East Village will have the convenience of an upscale, specialty grocery store where they can buy ingredients for a gourmet dinner, or pick up a fresh-cooked meal, such as Cornish game hen or a pasta dish, cooked on-site from scratch.
“We intend to bring good food to good people,” said Deborah Wagman, who said she plans to launch the store this fall at 428 E. Locust St. next door to the recently opened Kitchen Collage. Wagman, a gourmet chef who opened the Wire Wisk Workshop in October 2001, said she has already tested many of the recipes planned at the grocery in her East Village cooking classes.
“It will be a specialty grocery store, but it will also contain the things you need for everyday life, like quarts of milk and eggs,” she said. The store, to be known simply as “delicious,” will specialize in packaged dinners ready for people to take home as well fresh produce and gourmet foods. One of the grocery’s specialties will be organic cheeses made by women artisans.
Though the grocery store will carry fresh produce from local growers, it will be much different from the Metro Market west of downtown, Wagman said.
“We will cater to a more upscale market. I hate to say it in an elitist way, but sometimes the best ingredients are the most expensive.”
Wagman is betting that she can add to a core following of culinary customers she knows will patronize her store. Also, the numerous housing projects under way in the district were “definitely a driving force” for planning a specialty grocery, Wagman said.
“I know I’m coming in at a very early date,” she said, “But I really feel that it’s going to happen, that the housing is going to continue. And I believe it won’t be much longer before we’ve had it with the Wal-Mart (lack of service) thing.”
“Awesome,” was the reaction from the developer who recently broke ground for The Soho Lofts, a 32-unit condominium building that will have ground-floor retail.
“I think it would be great,” said Tony DeAngelo, CEO of Soho Development LLC, who said more retail will add energy to the East Village.
“It’s all just got a terrific positive momentum,” he said. “I think the nice thing about it is that it’s so pedestrian-focused, and in creating and retaining a true village atmosphere. It’s the Main Street image that interested me. Because of that, there’s a sense of community that’s really started to develop.”
DeAngelo said 14 of Soho’s 32 residential units are now reserved, and that about three-quarters of the building’s commercial spaces are leased for a March 2005 opening. Among those businesses will be a hair salon and a coffee shop.
Another developer is less sanguine about the prospects for a downtown grocery store, however.
“It’s very difficult, because downtown is still a 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. population, five days a week,” said Kyle Gamble, senior vice president of CB Richard Ellis/Hubbell Commercial, who said a similar specialty grocer on Ingersoll Avenue failed a few years ago. Hubbell Commercial has plans downtown to convert some upper-floor spaces on Court Avenue into condominiums.
Terry Vorbrich, an economic development coordinator for the city, said the failure of some past efforts at specialty grocery stores near downtown shows people really don’t want a store they can walk to.
“I think the people in downtown are just like anywhere else: they get in their car to go shopping,” he said. However, “as several hundred more residences come online in the next 12 to 18 months, we may get closer to that critical mass. But people still tend to shop the larger grocery stores.”
Vorbrich, who was closely involved with the city’s effort to attract the Top Value grocery store to Eighth Street and University Avenue a year ago, said the initial response to the store just north of downtown has been slower than expected.
“But they’re getting positive feedback from the people who do shop them,” he said. “Just like any business, it takes upwards of three years to build a clientele and change consumer habits. I think that’s what they’re doing now, trying to get people to change their habits.”
Nevertheless, the city’s office of economic development loaned money to the owners of the East Locust Street building in which the grocery will locate through the Neighborhood Commercial Revitalization revolving loan program.
“We’ve been working with the landlord to renovate the building and get it occupiable,” Vorbrich said. The renovations completed so far include new windows, wiring. and heating and ventilation systems. Wagman said the one of the next steps will be to install a professional kitchen.
Originally from Rapid City, S.D., Wagman said she learned the culinary arts by apprenticing under several chefs at resorts in the Black Hills and Montana. She owned a catering business in Rapid City for six years before moving to Iowa. Prior to that, she worked as a restaurant consultant, helping people open new establishments or troubleshoot problem restaurants. Among her clients was a company that developed Native American gaming facilities, so she started many of the casinos’ food programs.
Her cooking school, Wire Wisk Workshop, has a class that meets on Saturdays to collectively prepare a dozen different entrees that participants can then take home and freeze to have four dozen prepared meals for their families.
“We do the drudgery; everything’s ready to put together there like an assembly line,” she said. “It’s been real successful, but it’s also been a real stretch in our current space.”
One of the needs she’s seen for a specialty grocery is that her students often can’t find the fresh ingredients they need in one place.
“Our goal is to have the best ingredients possible and I’m convinced the way to do that is to go with our great local growers,” she said.
Being located next to the recently-opened Kitchen Collage, which sells culinary supplies and cookware, will be a natural fit, Wagman said.
“The mix with them is very, very good,” she said. “It’s a good match.”
Wagman plans to hire a chef, a baker and a market manager for the store, which she hopes to open on Oct. 13, the third anniversary of Wire Wisk Workshop.
Will the grocery have enough of a niche to do well?
“I believe we will, because we have a retail market with the cooking school,” she said. “I just see it growing from the core we’ve built. But yeah, I’m scared to death.”