The corner stores that once dominated Richmond’s neighborhoods today are seldom seen outside of the Fan and Church Hill, but a new chain of upscale mini-markets are turning the tide. When Ezaddin “Dean” Alasad and Faisal Surti teamed up to open Northside Gourmet Market in the heart of Barton Heights last September, the business partners could hardly have guessed the pent up demand for the quality and convenience their store provides.
“There are many pockets of the city that aren’t served with full-scale grocery stores right now,” says Alasad. “We work in the small areas that are not served by the big box stores. It seems to be the concept that people want these days because sometimes people just can't get to the supermarket or they just need a few healthy ingredients to cook dinner that night.”
Launching a gourmet market in a food dessert in the middle of a pandemic-triggered recession may sound like risky business, but for Alasad it was a return to his roots. After his family migrated to the U.S. in the early 1990s, they opened a bodega in New York City before moving South. Once in Richmond, Alasad teamed up with his father to open a store on Midlothian Turnpike. The business quickly grew to six locations around the region before Alasad left the industry to start Tritec ATM.
For years Surti asked Alasad to invest in the gourmet market concept with him, but not until Alasad noticed the rapid redevelopment of Northside over the last few years did he feel confident the model would be met with success.
“What I saw about the area is that it’s close to downtown, close to VCU, and there are a lot of people fixing up and renovating houses which means there are folks there working towards change,” Alasad explains. “Having your everyday needs close to your house so you can get them in your neighborhood is essential. That way folks don’t have to drive fifteen to twenty minutes just to shop.”
Before opening, the two business partners canvassed the area asking residents what they would like to see on shelves once the store opened. The dedication to their customers and their willingness to adapt Northside Gourmet Market’s offerings to the local clientele have paid off.
“The support of the people we serve for our concept is the most important thing, and we deliver,” says Alasad. “We have a white board at the front which is for everyone to write down what they like, don’t like, or something that’s missing and they’d like to see in the store. We tell folks: ‘You write it down, and we’ll have it here within a week.’ That’s how you tailor a store to a community and a neighborhood.”
The bodega on North Avenue has proven so successful that the duo already has three more locations of their National Gourmet Market empire in the works. Mocha Gourmet Market at 700 Idlewood in Oregon Hill is currently enjoying its soft opening until the full launch of that location later this month. In Scott’s Addition, the NGM Summit at 3022 West Broad Street has its refrigeration set up and is awaiting its final permits with a September grand opening on the horizon. 701 North 1st Street in Jackson Ward could become the chain’s fourth location if discussions with the developer go according to plan. To complete their expansion plans of ten stores by the end of 2023, Alasad and Surti are also eyeing potential locations in Manchester, Rockett’s Landing and Chesterfield.
The rapid proliferation doesn’t mean that they’ve lost focus on the local flair and customer choice that have fueled their success. “Our customers are mainly millennials and Gen Z, and their shopping habits are completely different from previous generations,” says Alasad. “Instead of buying a four-pack, they like to mix and match their beers. When you give that freedom to a customer, they appreciate it.”
With a wide array of beloved local brands to choose from, the options available can feel endless even in a smaller market. The roughly twenty local companies the markets highlight are all household names in Richmond: ice cream sandwiches from Nightingale, bread from Montana Gold bakery, bagels from Chewy’s, eggs straight from Chestnut Hill Farms, and salsas from Don Sebastian just to name a few. Folks even register in advance for the weekly deliveries of fresh milk and ice cream from Richland’s Dairy.
The long list of local beers Alasad and Surti can barely keep on the shelf are a testament to the niche in the market their corner stores are filling. “We don’t call ourselves a convenience store, and we aren’t a big box store,” Alasad says. “We are right in the sweet spot in the middle—we’re a convenient store.”