In January of this year, Ana Collins was at a crossroads. She had just taken a sabbatical from her job as a financial auditor at Heinz and was preparing for the imminent arrival of her younger sister from Venezuela.
At that same time, two women — Deirdre Kane and Dora Walmsley — approached Collins’ husband, Rob, to gauge his interest in buying their small grocery store at the corner of 52nd and Holmes in Lawrenceville.
Rob Collins has been in the grocery business his entire life. He currently owns and operates the Bryant Street Market in Highland Park. Was he ready to buy another one?
“It was like a perfect storm,” Ana Collins said over coffee at the 52nd Street Market. The store officially changed hands and reopened in June, and Ana and her sister Maria have been manning the counter ever since.
While Ana says that managing the market is more fulfilling than anything she did in the corporate world, she is open and honest about the struggles the market has experienced over the summer. The neighborhood has received them enthusiastically, but luring foot traffic up the hill from Butler Street has been a challenge.
“It is a lot more gratifying than a desk job,” she says. “But with that comes the worries about your own personal investment.”
Over the past 10 years, small neighborhood grocery stores have made something of a comeback in the Pittsburgh region. Heirloom Superfood Market recently opened in the Strip District, and in the city’s East End especially, a rapidly increasing population of young professionals has led to a rising demand for local food options.
And yet there are challenges. Professor Alice Julier, director of the Food Studies program at Chatham University, says that despite demand and enthusiasm for small grocers, places like Heirloom and 52nd Street Market are still facing a business environment that favors large, consolidated chains.
Just one example: the cost of storing and selling perishable items like meat and dairy favor big, corporate-backed establishments.
And small grocers can’t compete with chains like Whole Foods when it comes to prices, says Ana Collins. “Their sheer volume alone,” she says, “makes their price drop.”
But what they can offer instead, she says, are food products tailored to the community. She and Rob pointed to several products on their shelves, such as pickles from the Pittsburgh Pickle Company and dark chocolates from Lux in Highland Park, that were added in the last few weeks based on customer requests.
“That’s what’s good about dealing with local,” Rob says. “There’s no corporate infrastructure you have to go through. You just call them up and they give you the stuff.”
That connection with customers, coupled with the growth of new housing nearby, makes the couple optimistic about their chances.
Sitting in the 52nd Street Market before heading back to Highland Park, Rob Collins pointed to several new townhouses being constructed along 52nd Street that will soon be occupied by young professionals with empty refrigerators and money to spend.
“We’re just waiting,” he says, “while the neighborhood turns.”