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Development & Transportation

Here Are The Four Grocery Store Concepts Being Pitched For A Spring Opening In The Hill District

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Jake Savitz
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90.5 WESA

More than 100 people attended a virtual community meeting on Monday night to hear four grocers pitch their ideas to replace the Shop ‘n Save on Centre Avenue.

The online gathering marked a new phase of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 18-month effort to aggressively pursue grocers interested in serving the area. The agency owns the Centre Heldman Plaza site where the 35,000-square-foot former grocery store is located.

“Nobody’s been interested except those you see on the call today,” URA deputy executive director Diamonte Walker told residents. “Folks just were not interested and some of our main grocery store operators in the region were not interested.”

However, Walker said that meant the four grocers who did present — Family Tree Food Market, Fresh International Market, Pierre Development, and Salem’s Market & Grill — really want to be in the Hill.

For nearly three hours attendees weighed competing visions for the store.

Daniel Craddock and Khalid Morris of Family Tree Food Market described their grocery concept as an affordable mix between Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. They see food as medicine, and want their store to help improve peoples’ lives by offering in-store innovations such as a dietary center.

“We make shopping fun, easy, informative, and customized to meet your unique budget, your health needs, and your cultural food preference,” said Craddock, a former Hill District resident with both business and public health degrees.

Craddock and Morris said they would offer prepared foods, meal kits, and food delivery, and a trolley to connect people with the store; they want to start farms on currently vacant land in the Hill to supply the store, and open in March 2022.

Residents seemed skeptical in an ensuing chat. One person noting she would not visit a dietician in a grocery store, while several asked about the company’s track record in the grocery business. Craddock and Morris said they have not yet operated a store, but they have assembled a team with deep experience in the industry.

“This is a new thing. This is a new concept,” said Morris. But “a lot of years, a lot of experience, a lot of calculated research went into [it].”

Pierre Development’s plan took a very different approach: The Hill District Food Co-Op aims not just to respond to community needs, but to have residents shape the business as member-owners.

“Instead of us making everyone else money, this is an opportunity for us to truly make our community start to recycle the money inside of its own doors,” said chef Claudy Pierre, who owns Pierre Development.

Pierre’s vision includes a storefront eatery and would be a one-stop shop for core groceries as well as specialty foods and local products, beer and wine. In addition, the plan includes another co-op, ACE Hardware, that would offer a range of home and garden items.

Pierre said his concept brings together people who have been working in the community for years and leverages their particular expertise: Raqueeb Bey, the founder and director of Black Urban Gardeners; Carol Hardeman, co-director of the Hill District Consensus Group; and LaKeisha Wolf, the executive director of the Ujamaa Collective. Pierre runs the nonprofit Empowerment, Awareness, and Training (EAT) Initiative, which helps “food-insecure communities throughout the Pittsburgh, PA region to source, procure, and prepare their own healthy food.”

Though a number of commenters said they didn’t know if the co-op model was right for the Hill, others cheered Pierre Development’s plans. A number of people had questions about the store’s nickname, the Little Haiti Specialty Market. Pierre and Wolf explained that is an homage to the historic name for the Hill District, which referenced the 18th century overthrow of French colonial rule in Haiti by formerly enslaved people; they eventually established a new country and became the first nation to abolish slavery.

Fresh International Market, founded and owned by Bowen Kou, operates six stores across the United States. In the Hill District, Kou proposed a sister concept called Fresh IN Market, that would “focus even more on local community needs with a large selection [of] domestic and international cuisine.”

The concept would add more shelves for dry goods to allow for a larger share of domestic products than in Kou’s other stores, while still offering a food court, juice bar, and bakery. Kou said he plans to hire from the neighborhood, but the store’s manager and department supervisors would be relocated from existing stores. In the chat, people reacted negatively to this news, as well as the make-up of the store’s all-male executive team. One of only a few questions asked Kou how many Hill District residents he’d spoken to while planning his store.

“We did a comprehensive demographic report,” he said. “I’m pretty familiar with the diversity, with the history,” but said he hadn’t yet had the opportunity to speak with people face-to-face.

The evening’s last presenter was Abdullah Salem, owner and CEO of Salem’s Market & Grill, based in the Strip District. Salem’s father opened the business in Oakland in the early 1980s to provide halal products to the city. The business moved to the Strip District and opened in 2012 with a larger grocery and a cafe.

While Salem’s has entertained requests to expand to other locations, Salem said the Hill District is where he wanted to be. If selected, Salem would relocate the business to the Hill, with an expanded grocery, expanded restaurant menu, and eventually, a bakery. He said he planned to hire from the community for all positions, and to be a true neighbor “for whatever you need.”

He committed to supporting the Hill District’s master plan and its goal to restore the neighborhood’s vibrancy. While being the community’s grocer would be an honor, he said, “We understand that this is not really about us. This is about the Hill — the people who live there, the people we hope to welcome, and the people we hope to welcome back.”

Residents seemed excited about Salem’s proposal, and asked questions about how much shelf space would be dedicated to local products, grocery delivery — it’s in the works, Salem said — and outdoor dining.

Hill District residents have until Sept. 30 to rank their first and second-choice grocers and provide other feedback. Former Hill District residents are also encouraged to submit comments: Officials say they know there is a large Hill diaspora and welcomed all feedback, though they added input from current residents will carry more weight. (Hill District residents: submit your feedback here.)

The URA will make community opinion part of the selection process, along with a feasibility assessment. Walker said the agency aims to sign a lease with the new grocer by the end of November in order to get the neighborhood a viable, community-centered grocery store as soon as possible.

“It is inhumane that the Hill District continues to have a lack of access to fresh food sources,” she said.

Depending on the terms of the lease, the URA expects the new store to open by the end of April 2022.