SoapDish: Downtown Grocery Stores - Chew on this

In cities like Cincinnati and its old line peers, recent decades have seen clear trends signaling a reversal of the Eisenhower-era’s version of interstate-fueled “manifest [suburban] destiny.” The trend of young professionals, empty nesters, creative classers et al., moving into hip urban lofts replete with exposed ductwork, brick walls and bowl sinks, while loosening themselves from the dowdy shackles of cul-de-sacs, treeless subdivisions and endlessly joyless commutes has been explored ad nauseum and is (thankfully) not the subject matter of this particular screed. 

This Soapdish is more focused on what happens when you get here?  Where do you shop for the basic quotidian necessities of everyday life?  We all know that there is no shortage of restaurants, bars and myriad cultural outings. But what about the more mundane underpinnings of your daily routine?  Dry cleaners, while in short supply, are scattered sporadically about.  Same goes for the drug stores, but while the modern-era downtown Walgreen/CVS format has essentially become the urban “general store” (replete with dairy sections!), the do-it-all drug store is clearly no substitute for a traditional basic goods grocery store. 

This discussion topic inevitably yields way to the holy grail of new urbanist punchlists, that most coveted and elusive beast known as the Downtown Grocery Store.  Although there are no less than four Kroger stores within 2+ miles or less of downtown, I will recognize that those stores may not offer the most, shall we say, pleasing of shopping experiences.  Cincinnatians traveling to Chicago and New York see Whole Foods stores embedded gleefully in their urban environs and say “why not us?’  While it is indeed a valid question to ponder (aside and apart from population density issues), let’s not kid ourselves.  If you lived on Lytle Park, and Kroger opened up a chic new downtown grocery store, at, say, Broadway Commons, chances are that a large chunk of the shoppers in your neighborhood and throughout downtown are still going to get in the car to go shopping at that new Kroger or elsewhere (note this assumes the absence of a streetcar system).  Same goes for a store in the Banks vis-à-vis residents in the Gateway Quarter.  In this sense (aside and apart from demonstrating in no uncertain terms why the streetcar system needs to be built now), the elusive Downtown Grocery Store is something of a canard, a straw man (or woman, if you will).  It is simply a weak excuse to not move downtown.  People in the suburbs often drive more than four miles from the edge of their cul-de-sac to a grocery store, so if you hear someone carping about not being able to live downtown because there’s nowhere to buy groceries, rest assured there are other reasons for their intransigence.  Admittedly, a downtown grocery store would certainly make a difference from a cosmetic standpoint, and is certainly both welcome and necessary in order to move the urban resurgence forward, but its heft as a substantive tipping point is open to debate. 

The reason for this is that, well, there are places to buy your basic needs, and more.  Sure, the price points may not be ideal, and the stock may be a bit limited in scope, but hey--this is all about baby steps, folks, and downtown residents need to crawl to Avril Bleh, Findlay and the rest before they can walk briskly to Trader Joe’s and run breathlessly to Whole Foods.  Moreover, urban shopping is simply a different animal than your average run to the big box hyper-market, and people need to adjust their expectations accordingly. 

While everyone knows about the joys of historic Findlay Market, it’s funny how some see it as more of a bi-annual random Saturday novelty item rather than a regular shopping run (comments like “yeah, I really need to get over to Findlay.  I haven’t been there in a few months” are not uncommon, as if you need to recharge your urbanist street cred, rather than reflexively think of it as a viable shopping option).  In addition, this past summer, prime cut longtime butchery Avril Bleh & Sons opened a full service, albeit intimately cozy, grocery store next door to their shop on Court Street.  From fresh produce such as home grown silver queen corn and squash to Agalamesis ice cream to cleaning supplies and toilet paper, the store has all the basic needs of a downtown resident (not unlike a pared-down version of your average Korean grocer in Manhattan, but with a butcher shop).  While I was in there shopping, I observed the butcher from next door walking in to grab some fresh asparagus for the flank steak wagon wheels.  While he had to walk outside and leave the butcher store to re-enter the grocery store, the proprietors have indicated that they are working to open up an internal portal between the two stores (once those pesky city code issues get worked out). 

Although the Avril Bleh hours of operation need to be greatly expanded in order to meet the requirements of the typical downtowner (9 to 5:30 Tuesday through Saturday is, um, to put it mildly, not ideal—how about opening at 10 and closing at 7?), this is clearly a first step.  And it is a seemingly tiny step that needs to succeed before you get to the more glitzier options of a Trader Joes at 4th and Race or a boutique Kroger on the Banks.  During the workweek, the Court Street sidewalks thrive with an adjacent Tuesday/Friday seasonal produce market at Vine, the smokin’ Avril Bleh sidewalk grill, the grocery store, Servati’s and other nearby establishments, including the recent new stylish crepe joint entitled “It’s Just Crepes” in the old Javier’s digs (sadly, the Nicholas Gallery pulled its garage door shut for the last time this past summer).  In a nod to history, the produce market operates on the site of the original Farmers Wholesale Market, at one time Cincinnati's main outdoor farm commodity trading market, which began during the 19th century on Court Street. The market eventually grew so large that it blocked the street during market hours and, in 1926, was forced to move to 12th and Central Parkway by order of the Fire Department.

Irrelevant history lessons aside, while Avril Bleh’s humble little market is not going to replace your “big” trip to the hypermarket for coupon clipping cartfuls, jumbo-sized packages of paper products and multi-gallon containers of detergents, it is an important first step, and, trust me, don’t think the folks at Kroger just across the street don’t notice, if only a teensy bit, given all the flack they take about their relative lack of a downtown grocery presence.   This little place needs to survive, flourish and, most critically, multiply (and, don’t forget, expand its hours), just as downtown’s population continues to grow.  If Kroger continues to overlook the burgeoning downtown population massing within an 8 block radius of its HQ, hopefully independent merchants like Len Bleh and company will find a valuable opportunity to fill the gaps and connect the downtown dots….nicely complimented, or course, by that nifty new Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods over on 4th  , and, naturally, the streetcar system.

Photography by Scott Beseler

Children pick their favorites at Servatti's on Court St.

Avril's Market on Court St.

Avril Bleh & Sons, Court St.

Servatti's entrance

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Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.
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