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St. Paul residents grill owner who plans to reopen store known for mayhem

“It would be nice if you’d go away and leave us alone," said the woman in the red, who declined to give her name.

“It would be nice if you’d go away and leave us alone," said the woman in the red, who declined to give her name.

Ahmad Al-Hawwari wants to run a grocery store at Stryker Avenue and King Street on St. Paul’s west side.

The neighbors have been hurt, however, and hurt bad by the series of unsavory characters who have managed various resurrections of the relentlessly shady Stryker Market over the years. They’re reluctant to let Al-Hawwari – the building’s longtime landlord – try his hand at reopening a corner store that “looks like hell” and was once used as a front for drug dealing and food stamp fraud.

Not to mention the machete attack.

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The trouble with Stryker Market began in 2011, when then-owner Khaffak Ansari was indicted for exchanging EBT cards for cash and swindling $2.5 million from the federal food stamp program. Ansari was sentenced to more than three years in prison, which he tried to evade by running off to Belize. (The feds eventually caught him.)

The next owner, Hamza Abualzain, famously whacked a customer with a machete in an argument over the price of a can of juice. The customer, apparently, was some kind of asshole who didn’t think he needed to pay the 14 cent tax on the juice. So Abualzain responded by slicing him twice.

Later, St. Paul cops raided the market after receiving a flood of neighborhood complaints about drug dealing in the parking lot. A State Patrol helicopter hovered overhead as officers excavated pot and a digital scale from the back of the store.

A month after the raid, cops returned with state business inspectors, who took one lap around the store and ordered it to be shut down. Abualzain was arrested and accused of selling rotten milk and cheese and leaving produce uncovered in standing water – all without a food handler’s license. The building was condemned.

For the past four months, landlord Al-Hawwari has been working on Stryker Market again, signaling to the neighbors that the troubled grocery store they’d worked so hard to close was due to reopen.

Alarmed and agitated, some 30 people who live nearby packed a meeting room at the Baker Rec Center Wednesday night to interrogate Al-Hawwari about how he could have let a tenant like Abualzain carry on for so long. Many felt that Al-Hawwari was guilty by association.

“The plumber I’ve chosen, the electrician I’ve chosen, the drywall guys I’ve chosen, I chose all of those people because of their character. They reflect on me,” said Christopher Bolden, another local businessman who attended the meeting. “This gentleman does what he does because he is them, believe that.”

Others complained about the  ugliness of the market’s boarded up exterior and the trash that accumulated in the parking lot even in the building’s vacant months. One woman suggested that Al-Hawwari simply abandon his building and leave everyone alone.  

Al-Hawwari, who voluntarily agreed to meet with this band of unhappy neighbors, spent the greater part of the evening trying to convince everyone that the enemy of their enemy was their friend. Court records show that Al-Hawwari had been locked in a lawsuit against Abualzain for the past three years, trying to force an end to Abualzain’s 10-year lease.

“I’ve been through a three-year legal battle to get the former tenant out. It’s a very, very expensive venture,” Al-Hawwari said. “I just feel that we’re getting a bad deal and we have not yet been one day open. You guys all blaming us for the past three years… I probably should change my mind about running the business.”

He said he’s installed a brand new freezer, ventilation system, and air conditioner, and that by the time the store opens there’ll be spotlights and motion cameras outside as well. He promised to open up the windows, fix the siding, and call the cops often if people start loitering outside. Al-Hawwari asked for a year’s time to get the store completely under control.

That seemed to be a fair response to neighbor Laura Poquette.

“We’ve been ragging on Ahmed since I got there,” she said crabbily. “You’ve got darts and knives being thrown at you right now, I understand that… He answered he’s got a year plan. I think that’s a positive answer. Let’s face it, he’s coming into a hell hole and he’s gotta fight his way out.”

“I was expecting some help. I need help!” Al-Hawwari responded.

At the close of the meeting, many neighbors left unconvinced that Al-Hawwari would turn Stryker Market around. Legally he has every right to try – Al-Hawwari has passed inspections and is poised to receive a new food license. He has not yet applied for a tobacco license, but has indicated that would be the only way he could make money.