Gooh Grocery project expected to advance

Sometime in late spring or early summer, the city of Madison could approve a small, independent grocery development to replace a former strip club on Madison’s east side. For residents of an area the city considers a food desert, that’s like trading junk food for fine cuisine, and the project — Gooh (pronounced Go) Grocery — can’t get done soon enough.

Soon enough might be late September or early October, when building owners Jerreh Kujabi and Samba Baldeh are hoping to open the store. First proposed in March 2021, the independent grocery would replace Visions, a strip club that was the longest tenured occupant of the building, at 3554 E. Washington Ave.

Kujabi, an information systems support specialist for Sun Prairie Area School District, and Baldeh, a Madison Democrat who serves in the State Assembly, are seeking up to $250,000 from the state to renovate the building, which needs electrical and mechanical repairs. If the funding is granted by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC), a decision that is expected within the next 60 days, the city of Madison would serve as the “go-through” entity.

Minding the store

The first floor of the building contains about 3,200 square feet, so it’s roughly the size of a “community-serving store,” according to Kirk Keller, the lead project architect for Plunkett Raysich Architects, who describes the building owners as “two great guys trying to do a nice thing.”

Even though Hy-Vee’s east side location, at 3801 E. Washington Ave., is just three blocks away, the area is viewed as a food desert by the city. The neighborhood is supported by the East Madison Community Center, but there is a large residential population that is cut off by the I-39 alternate route and U.S. Highway 151, which makes getting to Hy-Vee a challenge, especially for families with limited transportation.

“The nearest large grocery store, you have to cross two highways to get to it — East Washington Avenue and then Stoughton Road,” Keller notes. “The community that it sits within has a lot of residents who maybe don’t drive, who have small families, and really the nearest food source is a convenience store gas station [Kwik Trip], which provides a limited palette of foods.”

Keller is quick to note that the Kwik Trip, at 3528 E. Washington Ave., is a neighborhood asset, but there is a need to complement that store with access to fresh foods. “The only way to really acquire that now is through a taxi or Uber driver for a population that is below the average [income] for Madison,” Keller notes. “The city strongly supports this, and we’re trying to provide it for a specific neighborhood while facing a main street to draw in the East Washington traffic for what I’m sure will be products that are individual to what both Jerreh and Samba want to develop for the property.”

The store will feature affordable, culturally relevant grocery items, including fresh foods and items for West African immigrants and for nearby Hmong and Latino residents. Kujabi says the goal is to ensure that access to healthy retail food is available to people who live in the surrounding neighborhood. “But in addition to that, there is a high presence of immigrants in that neighborhood, including immigrants mostly from West Africa, which is the part of the world I’m from, but we also have some Hmong folks who live there,” he notes. “So, in addition to being a regular, traditional grocery store, we’re also looking to provide specialty food items to those specific communities.”

Baldeh also notes the vision of a community grocery store that gives a mix of poor and lower middle-class residents better access to fresh food. “These are people who may not have access to transportation of their own, or even public transportation is not very affordable to them,” he explains. “So, the vision of the grocery is to really be located in an area where poor people, people who have no access to fresh food, can walk and get to the grocery store, but also the grocery store is supposed to be affordable.

“We intend to work with all the state and city agencies that provide food stamps or help the poor get access to food, so that the food is not only accessible by proximity, but also by affordability,” he adds. “This has a lot to do with health. Sometimes, the food we eat is what leads to our health care challenges.”

Green grocery

The future Gooh Grocery was built in 1947 as Kehl’s Casino and then had at least two other lives — as the Onion Restaurant and later as Visions. Since the building is now 75 years old, about 60 cents on the renovation dollar will be spent on new water service, and mechanical and electrical upgrades, Keller says. “If you strip away — bad term there — what was added onto the building in terms of signage and boarded up windows, it really takes on a late 1930s modern look,” he notes. “There is a round port hole window, but the windows are [mostly] very linear. There is some cast stone detailing, but it’s very linear as an accent piece, and then, typical of the time, there are fabric awnings over windows. It’s an interesting historical piece of Madison.”

The ability to remodel the existing site is the first example of the project’s sustainability, Keller adds. “It’s the greenest building possible because we’re not trying to tear down a building and start over from scratch … It’s green in that we’re trying to save it, and it’s an interesting old building, and a brave contractor [J.H. Findorff & Son] is taking it on.”

The food aspect will have sustainable features as well. The Hmong community will be one source of fresh produce, discussions are under way with local farmers to supply the butcher shop, and while there probably will be brand name products, that’s not its main goal. “It’s a matter of how you supply the dairy and the fresh products that maybe are not as readily available,” Keller says. “We’re not trying to be a large supermarket chain. So, they have a vision, and that’s what we’re trying to bring to life. Fortunately, the building is very efficient. It’s a simple rectangle, and we’re able to work with it well.”

As the owners prepare for their next meeting before the city’s Urban Design Commission (UDC), which takes place in late May, work is proceeding on landscape architecture and other detail work. Keller says the city has sent encouraging signals of support for a very simple reason. “A tenant that a large part of the community wanted to see removed is now gone, and we have a building that is not in operation. ‘Hey great, you guys are bringing it back to life. Glad to work with you.’”

Kujabi notes the project has not only enjoyed support from the city, which has already provided some funding for its acquisition, but also from neighborhood associations, residents, and even from people who are not from the immediate neighborhood. Like Keller, Kujabi believes that support has been granted due to the social impact of revitalizing a neighborhood. “We hope that when we return for more discussion on the technical aspects of the building, we won’t have any problem based on the feedback that we’ve gotten from the [UDC] informational session,” he states.

Baldeh believes that Gooh Grocery could be a model for other food deserts in Madison. “The city has been very supportive, absolutely supportive,” he says. “The fact that they agreed to be the go-through for our WEDC grant application speaks volumes. They made a strong recommendation to the WEDC, and beyond that, they also gave two grants that went toward purchasing the actual building … You know, if this goes well, the way we envision it, at some point we may see a replica of some of this around the city where they have challenges of this nature.”

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