By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer
It was the place to go if you wanted to put food on the table, a uniform on your child or even a doctor’s eye on that lingering ear infection. Best known as a full-service grocery, Circle Food Store had physicians and dentists working in cramped offices a floor above the produce aisle, and a clerk to cash checks and sell school uniforms not far from a sweet-smelling bakery. It served as a one-stop shop for 7th Ward neighborhood needs long before such an integrated approach became the fodder for endless urban planning seminars.
Now, nearly six years after Hurricane Katrina closed the turreted, Caribbean-influenced St. Bernard Avenue icon, it is prepping to again serve as that neighborhood’s hub.
“The only thing we didn’t do before was caskets,” the store’s owner Dwayne Boudreaux said. “We’re going to be that one-stop shop again, but only better.”
Indeed, for the first time in recent history, lights were on Thursday at Circle Food as Boudreaux prepped for renovation of the 22,000-square-foot building at North Claiborne and St. Bernard avenues. Concrete floors swept clean and air tinged only slightly with the scent of mildew, the cavernous two-story structure sits empty but intact. A walk through the historic former public market suggests a building in need of repair yet in better shape than one may imagine from its battered exterior. That impression is backed by an engineer’s report on the building, Tulane City Center architect Emilie Taylor said. The City Center, a program of the Tulane School of Architecture, completed a design survey of the building following Katrina.
But even with an optimistic owner and the building’s sturdy bones, the renovation will not be easy. Boudreaux says that it could cost anywhere from $3.5 to $5 million dollars, only a tiny fraction of it raised so far. “We are working to attract whatever we can,” he said. Boudreaux, a longtime Circle Food grocer who inherited the building when its previous owner retired, has, since Katrina, struggled with headaches that included mounting bills due to lapsed insurance, a dearth of outside investors and broken promises from former recovery czar Ed Blakely. After years of petitioning the city for support, he has collected a $100,000 planning grant and applied for another $1 million through a grant and loan program created by Mayor Mitch Landrieu to spur grocery development and access to fresh food in low-income neighborhoods. “The mayor said at that press conference that he wanted to reopen places like Circle Food. He mentioned us by name. I’m confident that we have a good shot,” the Harvey-based grocer said. The administration has not said when it will award the Fresh Food Retail Initiative grants. A spokesman for the mayor did not return calls Thursday.
Boudreaux declined to provide a timeline for construction given the huge financial hurdles ahead. In the meantime, however, he has begun wooing potential shoppers – and partners. “People from the neighborhood and from the community in general couldn’t be more excited to see it moving,” said J. Samuel Cook, the executive director of the 7th Ward Neighborhood Center. In the past year, Boudreaux has donated school uniforms to the nonprofit. “There is a lot, a lot of demand here for the services that Circle Food has always provided,” Cook said.
On a recent weekend that demand could be seen from the Interstate that passes in front of the market. With cars speeding behind him and boys on bicycles riding on the sidewalk in front of him, Boudreaux gave fresh okra and Creole tomatoes to neighbors walking by the shuttered store. The produce came from a farmer in Violet who hopes to sell to the store, he said. It went fast. “You coulda swore I had gold and silver,” he said.