Matthew 25 recently opened store in ‘food desert’ area
CEDAR RAPIDS — Pete Chihak — a “grocery boy,” as he refers to himself — eagerly roams the aisles of the new Cultivate Hope Corner Store off Ellis Boulevard NW in a bright green T-shirt, showing off the shop’s collection of healthy food.
Vibrant red, green and yellow fresh fruits and vegetables line the shelves. The savory aroma of rotisserie chicken fills the checkout area. In the middle, shelves are stocked with local pasta meal kits, cereal, granola bars and dairy items. Of course, locally brewed beers and wine from area distilleries also are within reach.
Frozen foods including fish, fruits and vegetables fill freezer shelves, while quality beef, pork, chicken and other meat are kept refrigerated in an open display case.
“I do like to barbecue, so I do know what a good, decent meat looks like, and this is good looking meat,” Chihak said.
Chihak, 66, moved to Cedar Rapids in the 1970s and lives on O Avenue NW. His own home has escaped destruction from flooding, but he knows others who weren’t so lucky. Over several decades, he’s seen a great deal of devastation in this part of town that’s still grappling with 2008 flood recovery.
The Time Check neighborhood area is classified as a “food desert,” with old shops and restaurants wiped out from flooding, and until now poor access to nutritious food within a reasonable distance.
But the nonprofit corner store, at 604 Ellis Blvd. NW, changes that. The $1 million store, operated by nonprofit Matthew 25, brings reduced-cost and some free healthy food to this part of Cedar Rapids, with a mission to improve food access and educate residents on how to have a more nutritious diet.
It started with a “soft opening” earlier this month and will fully open this coming week, with regular hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
“I want to see the northwest side improve,” Chihak said. “I've seen some good and bad here, obviously, in the northwest side and I see this whole area as being on an uptrend. And I think this is a big, big plus.”
What: Cultivate Hope Corner Store grand opening. Event features free food samples and an opportunity to meet some local vendors. People also may enjoy music, kids’ activities, giveaways and all-day deals.
When: 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 27. Short program at 5 p.m.
Where: 604 Ellis Blvd. NW, Cedar Rapids
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Matthew 25 Executive Director Clint Twedt-Ball said the store is a “social enterprise.” It’s projected to lose $100,000 annually, but its 501(c) 3 status gives the store access to underwrite the loss with grants, and also allows for volunteers to supplement staff work. There are about a dozen staff but the store is looking to hire more.
“The reason a lot of these small, boutique grocery stores don't exist in neighborhoods like this one is because of the challenges of making it work financially,” Twedt-Ball said. “You don't have enough customers that have enough of an income base to buy the food consistently.”
Through partnerships with local suppliers who believe in the store’s mission, the store is able to sell much of its food at reduced cost. Stickers show the suggested retail price versus the store’s lower price. A food pantry next to the fruit and veggies allows people to grab fresh produce for free.
In addition to the various food items, there are also Groundswell Cafe-branded salads and other ready-to-go meals created by its “top-notch” chef and prepared by cafe staff. The pay-it-forward cafe also is operated by Matthew 25.
Though the store has a particular eye on supporting Time Check and surrounding neighborhoods within walking distance of the store, Al Pierson, president of the Northwest Neighborhood Association, said there aren’t enough people to count on as customers in this area alone, so the store is hoping to draw people from around Linn County.
Already, Pierson and the staff at his own business, Pierson’s Flower Shop, are quickly coming to love the corner store. Neighborhood residents are used to having to go to Casey's get something frozen or otherwise lacking nutrients, Pierson said.
“A lot of people need to be educated on how to use fresh produce better, use it properly before it goes bad, and I think people just are not educated at all on that anymore,” Pierson said.
With that in mind, a key focus of the store is education. There’s a seating area where classes and other programming will be held. General Manager Mark Elias said that’s everything from teaching people about how to cook and use certain foods to make meals at home, as well as the value of nutritious foods in improving health or promoting walking to the grocery store instead of driving.
Iowa State University Extension will help with some classes and materials on food education. Elias said ISU Extension can help teach people how to grow fresh produce in their own yards or get connected to Matthew 25’s urban farm, or share and trade the produce they grow with others if they have excess. The store’s food pantry area accepts such donations.
Elias, a fourth-generation grocer, has worked for smaller independent grocers and large corporations. He said his dad used to have a grocery store in Western Iowa before he died in 1989 that was similar in size, with the same red brick. Located in the historic Hosmer Building, Cultivate Hope’s home was originally built in 1920 as a grocery store and meat market.
“It just reminded me a lot when I first saw this building my dad's store,” Elias said, smiling at an image of the store hanging above his desk.
Pierson recalls growing up with a 10 or so grocery stores — one on every couple of blocks in the neighborhood. He said the “Time Check” name came from the railroad company giving postdated checks to workers, who would take their checks into the grocery stores to buy food on credit.
When people hear nonprofit is running a grocery store, Twedt-Ball said, there is often an assumption that standards will be lower. He said Matthew 25 wants people to know the store aims to provide high-quality, fresh produce and products that rival any other grocery store and be a place that everybody is welcome, and where people pay it forward to help others have nutritious food.
“Come shop like you would anywhere else, and you're going to be happy, plus you're doing good for the community,” Twedt-Ball said.
The corner store’s launch is part of Matthew 25’s Healthy Neighborhoods capital campaign unveiled last year. Its initial goal was $1 million, but increased to $1.4 million because of rising construction costs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Twedt-Ball said the group was than $2,000 away from hitting its new goal.
The remaining funds will go toward three homes to be built on Eighth Avenue NW that will be sold to those at or below 80 percent of the area median income. The hope is to start construction this fall after working out a development agreement with the city of Cedar Rapids, Twedt-Ball said.
All these efforts combined help strengthen the social fabric of the neighborhood and meet the needs of the “missing middle.”
“I think people are looking for those walkable neighborhoods with small businesses, that connectivity where they can go to a place that's small enough that they see their neighbors, they run into people that they know, and yet they still feel like there are amenities that are bigger than what they would get out in a small town,” Twedt-Ball said.
Samuel Thomas, who lives off Edgewood Road NW and was shopping Monday, said it was his first time in the store but he’d driven by it a couple of times while taking his son to the Y. He usually shops at Hy-Vee or Natural Grocers, though Thomas said he’d prefer to buy from a local place such as Cultivate Hope.
“I’m sure I’ll be back,” Thomas said. “ … Something like this I feel like is really needed, because in particular areas, if you can’t get to a major grocery store, stuff like this is few and far between in terms of availability.”
As the city begins work to extend Sixth Street NW to Ellis Boulevard NW and connect Ellis to First Avenue, the Northwest Neighborhood and Time Check are awaiting improved downtown connectivity and buoyed economic development prospects. Other changes are taking shape in the neighborhood, with the Mirrorbox Theatre and a redo of Shakespeare Garden in Ellis Park.
“There's so many things going on in the neighborhood right now that it’s going to change rapidly, but this is a good cornerstone,” Pierson said.
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Cedar Rapids government reporter, The Gazette
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