Soup and sandwiches, loyal customers keep Downtown markets alive

Grocery stores may face challenges

CINCINNATI -- Talk of someone building a supermarket in downtown Cincinnati worries Pam Griffin, the owner of Sunshine Fine Foods Too at Elm Street and Garfield Place.

“I’m sure we would lose business,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to see it that close to me, but I believe we would survive.”

At Sunshine Fine Foods Too at Garfield Place and Elm Street, Kim Picklesimer waits on a customer who would identify himself only as Art.

She offers groceries and sandwiches for the people who live in several apartment complexes nearby, as well as hot food for the lunchtime crowd. Hers is one of several grocery stores Downtown that stay in business by feeding office workers lunch or by offering specialty foods that are hard to find elsewhere.

And some have given up the grocery business almost entirely because groceries wouldn’t sell.

Over the past few months, however, plans for three new groceries in or near Downtown have been announced:

  • In October, national developer of luxury apartment communities Village Green purchased 309 Vine St. for $10 million and announced plans to build nearly 300 apartments and 45,000 square feet of retail/office space, including 11,200 square feet for a market/grocery;
  • In January, the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority said it was negotiating to redevelop 16 W. Central Parkway into a mixed-use building, including 40,000 square feet of retail grocery space;
  • This month, the Epicurean Mercantile Company announced plans to open a full-service, 5,700-square-foot grocery and lunch counter at 1818 Race St. in Over-the-Rhine.

The Central Parkway grocery would be only two blocks from 33 and 37 Court St., where the Bleh family owns two adjoining businesses, Avril-Bleh & Sons Marketplace and Avril-Bleh & Sons Meat Market. The meat market has been in business since 1894, but the market opened just eight years ago, longtime employee Randy Art said.

Randy Art uses a saw to cut veal for a customer inside Avril-Bleh & Sons Meat Market on Court Street, which has been in business since 1894.

When it opened, the marketplace sold sandwiches and vegetables, dairy products, household items, cereal, canned goods and other household items, Art said. But the groceries didn’t sell, he said, and now the marketplace is basically a deli.

Josh Pelkey stands behind the counter at Avril-Bleh & Sons Marketplace on Court Street. He has worked there almost a year.

“I think a lot of the people we get in are people who like small businesses,” said Josh Pelkey, who was managing the marketplace Thursday afternoon. The two Bleh businesses complement one another, he said – the marketplace stocks fresh produce, so that customers can buy their vegetables there and meat next door to make a complete meal.

The meat market’s huge display case contains 37 varieties of homemade sausage and smoked meats, plus five different kinds of goetta. Behind the case, butchers in white coats and aprons cut meat to fill custom orders. They address customers by name, and will pause to tell them how to cook a cut of meat.

Many customers have shopped here for years, Art said, and some come from as far as Louisville and Lexington to buy bacon. “We make sure we slice it the way they want it, and package it the way they want it,” he said.

A supermarket in downtown Cincinnati might hurt business initially because of the novelty, Art said, but not in the long run. “People could go to Kroger in their own neighborhood to get sausage,” he said, but they come to Avril-Bleh instead.

Another longtime downtown Cincinnati market, Cianciolo’s Market at 720 Main St., still stocks fresh produce and some canned goods, but much of its retail space is a large salad bar. Manager Miranda Crawford referred questions to the owner, who could not be reached for comment. The store was closed Monday.

Most Downtown markets are closed in the evening and have limited weekend hours. Silverglades Deli & Grocery at 236 E. Eighth St. used to stay open until 7:30 p.m. on weekdays, but now closes at 6, owner Craig Silverglade said. In the early ’00s, he stocked a wide variety of groceries, but that lasted only a few years because they didn’t sell.

He had the same experience with the deli he owned at Fourth and Plum, he said, before he sold it in 2004 to Beth Gilb, who renamed it Caffe Barista & Deli. That deli does a brisk lunch business selling sandwiches to office workers, but Downtown residents also buy fried foods for dinner there, Gilb said. Given a day’s notice, she also provides specialty produce for those residents.

Customers queue up to pay for their lunches inside the Caffe Barista & Deli at Fourth and Plum streets.

Although her selection of produce and groceries is limited, she said, a Downtown supermarket would cut into her business.

“I would love to be everybody’s grocery store, but I can’t,” she said. “I don’t have the space.”

Silverglade believes a grocery would struggle because Downtown residents are mainly empty-nesters and young professionals, Silverglade said, neither of whom do much cooking. Instead of grocery shelves, Silverglades has 70 seats for lunchtime diners, most of them professionals who work Downtown. “My niche here is sandwiches and soup items,” Silverglade said.

A grocery would need “deep pockets and long arms,” he said, such as the Kroger Co. has.

A historical marker outside the Kroger Co. store in Over-the-Rhine describes how the store was one of the first that Kroger ever built.

Kroger already has a grocery at 1420 Vine St. in Over-the-Rhine, just a few blocks from Downtown. At 14,000 square feet, it’s “significantly smaller” than the suburban stores Kroger has now, said Patty Leesemann, spokeswoman for Kroger’s Cincinnati/Dayton division. She declined to say how much foot traffic it gets.

Asked if Kroger would consider expanding the store, she replied that Kroger has “been working for some time to respond to the residential growth of OTR and Downtown,” and said Kroger is interested in a new Downtown store if it’s economically viable. “We don’t comment or speculate on what competition might be doing,” she added.

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