Published on October 29th, 2013 | by Josh Hafner
Does Des Moines need more grocery options downtown?
The recent opening of a small grocery store in the Des Moines’ East Village rekindled a discussion among downtown residents that seems to grow louder as the area evolves: Why do we have to drive so far to get groceries?
In truth, there are groceries downtown if you know where to look. Hawkeye Pantry has offered a convenience store to the skywalk for years. New Oriental Food Store on East Grand Avenue sells international goods. Walk a bit further and Gateway Market in Sherman Hill, on the edge of downtown, offers an upscale option focused on local, organics and specialty items.
Yet the lack of a traditional grocery store — one that offers a larger selection of products and things like a produce section or meat counter — has YPs jumping in their cars to head out of downtown and to such locations as Hy-Vee on Fleur Drive or Dahl’s on Ingersoll Avenue. With a visible location across from Raygun and down the street from Zombie Burger, the new East Village Pantry hopes to endear itself to downtowners, YPs included.
“We like the downtown area,” said Aileen Mahmood, who owns the store with her husband, Shaw Mahmood. “They need something like this.”
Mahmood speaks from some experience. She and her husband opened the Downtown Pantry on Fourth Street — a nearly identical store with shelf-stable groceries, some produce, meat and an extensive alcohol selection — in 2010. The store was recently forced to close to make way for renovation related to the nearby historic Randolph Hotel.
The Mahmoods hope to revive the Downtown Pantry in the bottom floor of the newly renovated Fleming Building, she said. Yet even before its closure, plans were in the works for an East Village location.
“We had a lot of people asking, ‘Why don’t you open in East Village so we don’t have to keep walking over the bridge?’” she said.
“Walking” is the imperative word. In a city that’s still small enough to get in a car and be at pretty much any grocery store in under 30 minutes, the Downtown Pantry thrived off customers who either wouldn’t or couldn’t drive. Think residents of Elliott Apartments or Elsie Mason Manor, she said.
“They don’t have to go clear out to Hy-Vee,” she said. “The bus system is hard for them. Plus a lot of them are handicapped so they can’t walk long distances.”
While Mahmood expects to cater to similar clientele at the new store, residents from the East Village’s trendier apartments are poking their heads inside as well. The store will stay stocked on the basics like eggs, milk and bread, and take requests to try to spare these customers a trip to a more traditional grocery store, she said.
As reported in The Des Moines Register earlier this year, none of Des Moines’ largest grocery chains — Dahl’s, Hy-Vee and Fareway among them — have a location in or near downtown. The city also has as many as 14 food deserts, low-income areas where a substantial number of people have little access to a major grocery store.
The lack of a major grocer in downtown was noticed by Matt Lawrence about three days after he moved to the area this fall. Lawrence, 28, is a graphic designer who has lived in several cities, including Portland, Ore.; Denver and Malmo, Sweden. Des Moines is the first where he does not have a full grocery store within walking distance, he said.
“I would love to see either one of the local chains — either a Hy-Vee or Dahls — right downtown,” he said. “… Without those basic infrastructure needs there, it’s not ever going to become a destination for the young people that Des Moines wants it to be.”