Before a press conference began in front of the newly renovated Circle Food Store on N. Claiborne and St. Bernard avenues, a handful of cashiers was giggling inside, wearing balloon animals on their heads and making last-minute preparations while customers wandered in and out, poking around the grocery aisles.
Erica Rayford, a 22 year-old 7th Ward native, knew she wanted to work here when she found out the store was reopening. “I used to always come here,” she said, smiling behind the register. “I couldn’t wait for the store to reopen.”
The Treme landmark opened in 1939 as the first African-American-owned grocery store in New Orleans. It closed in 2005 when it was inundated with five feet of floodwater following the levee collapse. City officials and owner Dwayne Boudreaux gathered this morning to cut the ribbon on the historic grocery, which was originally slated to reopen last summer.
Under the jump: more from the market and a slideshow of images ...
The city’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative invested $1 million in the project, $500,000 of which will be forgivable. “We are going to continue to work really really hard with them to make sure we are as good a partner to them as Dwayne, you and your family have been to us,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “The Boudreaux family, who never left this neighborhood and did everything they could to make sure they came back strong after Katrina … got back up, took one step at a time, persevered and did what was necessary to be part of a partnership that actually brought back this anchor for the city of New Orleans and actually created the vision for making the Circle Food Store the way she always could have been.”
The store already has hired 66 employees, and 95 percent of those are local, Landrieu added.
Boudreaux, dressed in a bright yellow suit, addressed the crowd with a simple question: “Who would ever think that some crazy folks down in New Orleans would come out and be so excited about the opening of a grocery store?”
“But where else in the world would you have a grocery store that has been here for so many years, and got devastated, and closed down and opened eight years later?” he said. “You are why I did it. This is not just a situation where you go into a shopping experience. This is where everyone comes as a cultural meeting place. A social avenue…But I know most of you are here for the bell peppers, four for $1.”
District C Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer reminded the crowd, “What makes a neighborhood is not just our houses and our people but our services.” District D Councilmember Cynthia Hedge Morrell, who grew up four blocks away from Circle Food, had a simple message she directed to the mayor. “This was a vibrant, vibrant area,” she said. “We had it all. And we want it back. All I can say to you, Mr. Mayor, is this is a first step, but we need to have some more.”
The fanfare proved too much for one group of shoppers who just wanted to get inside the store. They started chanting, “We want to shop!” again and again from the back of the crowd, imploring the speakers to cut the ceremonial ribbon and get the grocery-making underway.
There were a few first-day kinks to work out, like a set of automatic doors that was malfunctioning, and the store won’t begin to accept SNAP benefits until 5 p.m. But the space is bright, clean and stocked floor to ceiling, with its pharmacy up and running and Antoinette’s Delicatessen filling the whole grocery with good smells. Hope Enterprise, which put $1 million into the project, also opened a branch of its credit union in the store.
Sheila Cheneau made her way through the long line to get in the store and was mulling over a big heap of potatoes. “I’ve been coming here since the ‘70s,” she said. “My mother used to bring us. We used to buy vegetables, like these things were four for a dollar. We used to get meat and stuff.”
Then she yelled over to a friend, “Grab two bottles of the Blue Plate!”