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More than a simple chore, buying groceries in North Minneapolis has turned urban consumerism into the kind of perverse shopping exercise that went out of date in Moscow a decade ago.
Case in point: Sullivan's New Market, the anchor of one of the few major retail developments meant to breathe economic life into the deteriorated West Broadway corridor. Since most patrons walk or are driven to the store, the parking lot is only full a couple of times a month. As you walk up to the front, given the day, a group of men extend a greeting. Those men are significant. They stay out front all day soliciting patrons. They have cars and offer rides from the store. It's illegal and annoying, but hey, everybody has to make a buck somehow.
Once inside, Sullivan's looks similar to any other grocery store. Rows of neatly stacked food items are arranged by category. Stock people are busy reshelving. But venture a little deeper, and you'll start to wonder whether something's not right. In the vegetable aisle, you'll notice withered produce sitting lifeless in bruised, brown splendor. Maybe it simply went bad overnight and you've arrived too early for the stock person to change it. Maybe, as you walk past Sullivan's selection of exotic slaughterhouse-floor delectables--ice-cooled pigs' ears, feet, and hocks, beef tongue, stomach lining--you'll chalk it all up to cultural preferences.
Maybe the floors are filthy with what appears to be months of unchecked traffic because--well, who knows--just because. Maybe the checkout people--who are sharing a pizza while shoppers wait to have their purchases rung up--are usually friendly, but by some mystical coincidence the days you shop coincide with the days your clerk has an attitude. They can't always be crabby, you convince yourself. Customer service can't always be this bad. "The store continues to operate," you tell yourself, "so nothing must be wrong."
The North Side is full of businesses, social-service agencies, homes, and just about everything else any urban community is expected to possess. Everything except a variety of viable supermarkets. Sullivan's, located on West Broadway at the intersection with Lyndale Avenue, enjoys a virtual monopoly over a neighborhood that's home to more than 100,000 people. Its only competition is Marche's SuperValu further west toward the Minneapolis/Robbinsdale boundary.
While she lives within walking distance of Sullivan's, Tara Parrish, like many other North Side residents, has unofficially boycotted the store because of its appearance, products, and poor service. She's lived on the North Side for two years now and says her few experiences with Sullivan's have had more drama than a simple shopping experience should hold. "When I need to go to the grocery store it always occurs to me to go there first because it's closest, but I always end up going to Rainbow" in Robbinsdale, she says. "Every time I've been in [Sullivan's] there's been some kind of altercation with customers or just general rudeness of [some of] the people that work there that makes me think they don't want my business."
And it's not just the goings-on one would expect during a late-night talk show that keep her away, adds Parrish. She and others have come to see the store as a slum-lord retailer getting away with charging higher prices for lower-quality products and services because of the demographic it serves; a lower-income melting pot of whites, Southeast Asians, Native Americans, and African Americans.
It wasn't always this way. The former Will's New Market--built by neighborhood-grocery magnate Will Reichel--was once considered an easily accessible source of supplies. But quality plummeted, residents say, after it was sold by interim owner Dave Haugen to its current owners in April 1994. About two years later, Will Reichel's son, Mark, announced plans to open a nearby competitor to Sullivan's. The store, planned to anchor the Plymouth-Penn Shopping Center, never went up and the Reichels have since become entangled in litigation with the Minneapolis Foundation, which provided them with start-up money from its entrepreneur's fund.
The development was to be the first stage of a three-phase project to revitalize Plymouth Avenue. After McDonald's pulled out in the late '80s, the area along Plymouth between Penn and Newton had become dilapidated and the Reichels, along with other tenants including Lucille's Kitchen, were supposed to breathe new life into the area. To that end, various agencies, including the Minneapolis Foundation, the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA), the Northside Residents' Redevelopment Council (NRRC), and its spin-off company, the Plymouth Penn Corp. invested mega-cheese. The MCDA loaned Plymouth Penn $995,000 to renovate the mall, assuming the grocery store would serve as its lead tenant.
Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Foundation gave the Reichels more than $200,000 while the NRRC administration put up with missed rent payments and provided technical support and help navigating the city's inspections regulations. Nonetheless, the Reichels failed to get the store off the ground (though, a fact that was not lost on any of the parties, they were able to open a store in Blaine during the same period).
The Plymouth-Penn mall, which includes an all-but-stocked grocery store, was eventually renovated anyhow. The foundation, which has been left holding the bill for the equipment sitting unused inside the storefront, is suing the Reichels. NRRC is said to be talking to potential tenants, but for the moment, the end result of the fiasco is that people in a large segment of the North Side who can't drive to the Robbinsdale Rainbow are left with Sullivan's as their only choice.
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