“People pass by every day and see them doing work on the place,” said Ernestine Rayford, who lives across St. Bernard Avenue from the store. “That’s all everybody’s talking about: The Circle Food Store. The Circle Food Store. The Circle Food Store.”
The landmark store at St. Bernard and North Claiborne avenues, which has been closed since Hurricane Katrina, was a one-stop shop for residents of the nearby 7th Ward and Treme neighborhoods for more than six decades. In addition to food, it offered banking services, medical care and school uniforms.
“You could come in and go to the doctor, go to the dentist, buy hot food and live, wild game,” said Dwayne Boudreaux, who took over the store in 1992 after working his way up from an employee.
The 22,000-square-foot supermarket didn’t reopen after it was swamped by floodwaters following the failure of the city’s levee system in August 2005.
Boudreaux said he always knew he wanted to reopen the store, but he struggled for years to put together a financing package to make the project happen.
“It’s like we had the train and not the caboose, or else the caboose and not the train,” Boudreaux said. “We never could get it all together.”
In August 2012, seven years after closing, the store received a $1 million loan through the city’s Fresh Food Retailer Initiative that helped to unlock other investments, Boudreaux said. Financing for the $8 million renovation also includes historic restoration and new market tax credits, funding from the state Office of Community Development and a $100,000 grant from the city’s economic development fund.
Contractors began working on the site in January 2013.
“I had a lot of people come to me about leasing this place, about buying this place,” Boudreaux said. “But the customers were adamant. They didn’t want that to happen.”
Thursday, one day before the grand reopening, those persistent and patient neighbors were given a sneak preview of the remodeled store.
The rejuvenated Circle’s interior is grander-looking than its predecessor. To qualify for the historic restoration tax credits, a second floor had to be removed. The ceiling is now 24 feet high instead of 8, Boudreaux said, and skylights and windows that once had been covered now admit sunlight.
Longtime customers will also notice the addition of a deli and a seating area where coffee will be available.
The store was popular for its large selection of produce, much of it supplied directly by local farmers, and for stocking hard-to-find items like Creole cream cheese, and goose grease and honey, a concoction favored by locals for remedying colds, Boudreaux said. Those items are all returning.
The store will also bring back its bargain-priced bell peppers. A circular distributed to customers this week advertised four bell peppers for $1.
“We try to think of ourselves not as a grocery store that sells produce, but as a produce market that sells groceries,” said Boudreaux, who includes a picture of a bell pepper on his letterhead.
Boudreaux has been unable to bring back one popular item: school uniforms. Uniforms were housed on the ripped-out second floor.
“Almost every customer comes by and asks if we’re doing uniforms,” Boudreaux said. “We don’t have the space right now, but we’re working on it.”
He said he wants the store to again be a fixture in the neighborhood, a place where residents feel comfortable stopping in and asking him to carry the items they need.
The community surrounding the store is largely low income, and many residents don’t own vehicles. Without the Circle, many of them have been at least a half-mile away from the nearest supermarket, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“If you don’t have ready access to a grocery store, it becomes very challenging to meet the needs of a healthy diet for yourself and your family,” said Michael Kantor, co-chairman of the New Orleans Fund Policy Advisory Committee, which studies the issue of access to food in New Orleans and has made recommendations to the city about relieving the shortage of grocery stores in many neighborhoods. “It’s important to have that option available, so that people can make choices that are convenient and healthy for their household.”
Rayford said she has had to choose between shopping at higher-priced corner stores with limited food options, paying $15 or more to take a cab back from a grocery store outside her neighborhood or making several bus trips a week to a supermarket.
“It was hard for this area,” she said. “For this place to come back, it’s a huge burden off of a lot of people.”
The store is reopening in a different environment from before Katrina.
There is new competition from a Dollar General Market less than a half-mile away. Former customers have discovered new places to shop.
“I’m concerned that their habits have changed, that they’ve started to do other things,” Boudreaux said. “But by the same token, I think we’ll get them back because we know who they are. We are sensitive to their needs.”
The store will employ 65 to 75 part-time and full-time workers. About 85 people worked at the Circle before it closed.
Rayford’s son is among the store’s new employees, and Rayford promises to be the first in line on opening day.
“It took a long time, but we are finally here,” she said.