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VOL. 123 | NO. 210 | Monday, October 27, 2008

Grocery at Heart of Neighborhood’s Rebirth

By Tom Wilemon

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NEIGHBORHOOD SPOT: Angela Nesbitt and Williams Street Grocery & Deli are part of the neighborhood’s rebirth. -- PHOTO BY TOM WILEMON
Williams Street
Grocery & Deli
 755 Williams Ave.
Open daily 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“We wanted to come back to the community and give back to the community from where we came.”
– Angela Nesbitt
Manager, Williams Street Grocery

The line starts forming before noon in the back of Williams Street Grocery & Deli, where the yams are sweet enough to save for last and the juice from the greens is good enough to sop up with a pancake of hot-water cornbread.

The store nurtures the neighborhood around LeMoyne-Owen College with good food at a good price, inspirational phrases on the message board, gospel music on the sound system and no nonsense in the parking lot.

Store manager Angela Nesbitt, while wiping down a table after the lunch rush, sums up the business best with her stated desire: “I want it to be like somebody’s home.”

Center of community

Williams Street Grocery operates like a well-run household because its employees are all family members, in-laws or friends of the family. The business sits just outside the western entrance to College Park, the first Hope VI development in Memphis. The store opened in 2001 when construction workers were building the development on the site of the old LeMoyne Gardens public housing project.

Williams Street Grocery is integral to this neighborhood’s rebirth, said Jeffrey T. Higgs, executive director of the LeMoyne-Owen College Community Development Corp.

“I think it adds more character to the neighborhood,” Higgs said. “It sends the right message that small businesses can survive in a community that historically has been disserved by major grocery stores and brands and franchises. I think it sends a powerful message to other small-business people who are looking to move into these emerging markets. I think it sends a very strong message because they have done very well.”

With 49,000 square feet, the store has enough space to stock household necessities, house the cafeteria-style eatery and display plenty of candy.

“We wanted to come back to the community and give back to the community from where we came,” Nesbitt said. “We wanted to come back to the store where we used to come.”

She has fond memories of buying Coca-Colas and sour cream onion potato chips at the Great Ocean, the store that once operated in the same building. The building had been vacant for several years when it was gutted and reconfigured for Williams Street Grocery.

Solution for all tastes

The grocery began selling prepared foods to construction workers and established a reputation. The prepared foods account for about 65 percent of sales, Nesbitt said.

She and others at the store often work long hours because the grocery is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The store employs six people, including Tinnie “Michelle” Molton, the head cook. She won’t give any advice on which vegetables – green beans, squash, lima beans, boiled okra or purple hull peas – are the best.

“I only eat meat,” she said.

Molton knows how to cook vegetables “because my mama made me get into the kitchen when I was 10 years old.”

The menu varies according to the day of the week, but there’s usually between four and eight entrees to choose from: baked chicken, meatloaf, ham hocks, smothered pork chops, turkey wings, fried chicken, fried fish, pepper steak or chitterlings.

Diners usually get to choose between buttered cornbread or hot water cornbread.

“We try to have a variety of food,” Nesbitt said. “Everybody has got different tastes.”

It’s Southern soul food, but that doesn’t mean every item is swimming in grease.

“We cook all our vegetables with smoked turkey,” Nesbitt said. “We don’t use any pork in our vegetables. You can eat healthy here. When we first opened up, we used to serve salt meat in our vegetables. We stopped that because everybody was talking about their health.”

The grocery also has a full-line of desserts: peach or apple cobbler, red velvet cake, sock-it-to-me cake, butter roll, lemon cake, strawberry cake, banana pudding and chocolate cake.

The dessert choices vary each day. On a recent Sunday, the choices were coconut pineapple cake, German chocolate cake and caramel cake.

Nesbitt said it’s a good feeling to know the neighborhood she grew up in is a better place.

“It’s better and improved,” she said. “You don’t have people with the same bad attitude. You don’t have as much crime as when it was LeMoyne Gardens. I think this neighborhood has improved a lot. You see people walking more and mingling more.”

PROPERTY SALES 83 405 4,276
MORTGAGES 104 424 4,814
BUILDING PERMITS 148 883 10,151
BANKRUPTCIES 53 264 3,149