Land Use

Grocer forging ahead with plans to resurrect Seventh Ward's iconic Circle Food Store

Seventh Ward Neighborhood Center director J. Samuel Cook delights in the revived interest in the curved-front shopping center at Claiborne and St. Bernard avenues. Photo by Ariella Cohen.

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.

Nearly six years after flooding in Katrina, Circle Food Store sits empty but intact awaiting a renovation that everyone wants but no one quite knows how to pay for. By Ariella Cohen

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.

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  • Oh, I hope this happens! I feel like similar hopeful stories have been intermittently in the press since I got here four years ago. Does it seem like this could *really* happen this time? I know there’s a rebuilding plan and a business plan, but those have been in place for some time. Will the initiative monies be enough? Is there insurance money available? A timeline of any sort? I remember going to Council meetings about this two years ago that were promising, but I haven’t followed closely enough to know if there were results from that. What will it actually take?

  • Denise

    it’s about we get this social meeting place up and running. Before facebook this was the place where you found out about what was happening in the neighborhood. Who got a new job, who moved away, who came back. Creole from the word go. I’m telling you this place is surly missed. It was always a social scene. If you stood up and said I forgot how to cook something, people would surround you and give you a recipe passed down in their families for generations. Please Please Please make this happen and make me the concierge in the place.

  • Oh, man! From your lips, keyboard et al to God’s ears, and the bankers fingers on the purse strings! I first shopped at the Circle when I visited my grandmother back in the 50’s.

    It was one of the (many) reasons as an adult I moved to New Orleans and into the Marigny and then Bywater so that I could shop there.

    I really hope this happens, and isn’t just another big tease

  • John Joly

    I sure hope Boudreaux does this right. I figure it to be a major project – much harder than operating the grocery. Hopefully, the neighbors will rspect the effort and enjoy this landmark of N’Awlins! Last time I was there was to shoot a scene in “Double Jeopardy” and that brought back memories of running over there from Gentilly or Lakeview for some great stuff unavailable elsewhere in the city.

  • Big Lou

    How many places are left where you can pick out a live chicken or turkey and have it butchered right there on the spot? Plus they’d buy every live snapping turtle you could bring them. But that was about 60 yrs ago.

  • brenda gabriel

    This store was owned by my family the Gabriel’s. My dad and some of his brothers and sisters owned and worked this store. I remember going there as a child with my dad. This is truly a New Orleans landmark. I still get teary eyed as I pass the Circle when I am in town. I hope Dwayne does the store justice!