Last Stop Shop

Cory Rasmussen

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groceries in North Minneapolis has turned urban consumerism into the kind of perverse shopping exercise that went out of date in Moscow a decade ago.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.

While conceding that his store has customer-service problems, Sullivan's Manager Mark Happley protests that the city has abandoned the neighborhood. He says he can't interest the City Council, and the Minneapolis Police Department is wholly unresponsive. For instance, he's been trying to get rid of the jitney cabs outside the store for years, he says. He's worked with Council member Jackie Cherryhomes, who represents the area, to secure new cab licenses but still can't get the legal drivers to pick up fares at the store.

Happley also denies neighbors' complaints that his prices are higher, but adds that his overhead includes paying for security. Starting pay for Sullivan's employees, he says, is $5.55 an hour. Workers who stick around for two and a half years can earn more than $10 an hour.

Neighborhood residents, by contrast, say the store effectively holds them hostage and shouldn't expect praise for hiring area residents. Impoverished consumers, they add, can't vote with their dollars as can the more affluent residents of, say, Uptown, who have multiple stores within a similar geographic area.

Phil Greenberg, property manager for the shopping center where Sullivan's is located, says he's never heard complaints about the grocery store. He says Sullivan's management has worked hard to keep the store up to code and has even "gone out of their way to hire people from the community." Greenberg says Sullivan's has been "a good tenant" and has "undertaken initiatives on their own which have been positive. However, there's always room for improvement for anyone."

Not surprisingly, the West Broadway Business Association, a clearinghouse for small- to mid-level businesses on West Broadway, has given Sullivan's what amounts to a seal of approval. WBBA and the University of St. Thomas recently completed a preliminary study of the shopping habits of people along the West Broadway corridor. WBBA Executive Director Rod Wooten says no comprehensive data has been collected on just how many people, if any, are complaining about the store. "Generally they liked the store," says Wooten, whose job is to be a booster for area businesses. "I'm not sure who was talked to. But generally they felt that the store's service delivery was okay."

Toi Miller, a South Sider whose North Side job requires her to spend time near the store, agrees that improvements could be made. However, she contends that Sullivan's isn't the only party responsible. Miller, who has worked as a manager for Target as well as a consultant for other businesses, says her experience with other urban retailers tells her that service and product quality suffer when crime is higher. "There's two sides of the story," she proclaims. "It wouldn't matter what store or grocery store [was there] because I honestly believe the prices are going to be higher in that location because the profit loss is so great.

"I remember a time when New Market had steaks--good steaks--and I remember when they put those steaks out I could guarantee you that those steaks would be on the street being sold hot," she says. "This is money walking out the door from them." Poor customer service, she adds, indicates that too many of the workers in the immediate community lack the basic job skills businesses require.

Happley agrees, explaining that last year, he hired 371 cashiers, and a similar number were fired or quit. "I've tried to recruit from outside but no one wants to come into community. We deal with an element that, I will use the word, is chronically unemployed," he protests. "It's going to take finding a quality of employee that enjoys customer service. I don't see that with some of the employees we have now. A lot of them quite plainly come in with attitudes. It's very hard to train that out of them."

It's this kind of view of the North Side market that area residents fear drives the decisions made by business owners who might otherwise build a Byerly's or a Rainbow here. They fear that store owners in poorer neighborhoods (and media stereotyping aside, there's no real evidence that the three neighborhoods surrounding Sullivan's are collectively any worse off than their neighbors in Robbinsdale) feel justified in expecting less of employees, in selling lower-quality products for a higher price because crime is "inevitable," and in neglecting their property.  

"There's absolutely no excuse," says Parrish. "If they really took pride in their job, in their work and their store then they would be a little more particular about the people that they hire--from the neighborhood or not."

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