More than eight years after it flooded and closed due to Hurricane Katrina, the Circle Food Store on the corner of Claiborne and St. Bernard avenues is about to reopen its doors. The historic landmark served the 7th Ward from 1938 until the storm, and it’s said to have been the first New Orleans grocery owned and operated by African-Americans. Long-time residents and customers voice their reactions to the long-awaited return of this neighborhood staple.
Dwayne Boudreaux has owned Circle Foods since 1993. He’s been trying to restore the building since it flooded in Hurricane Katrina. Dwayne knew he wanted to bring back Circle Foods, but for a while had no resources or backing from the city to do so. He let other options enter his mind.
“I started talking and entertaining ideas of leasing the place to a few different companies, some chain stores showed up, and every time I met, I didn’t tell anybody, but the whole community knew. We’d get calls that said, hey, we don’t want this company there, we don’t want that — we want Circle Foods back; that’s what we need in this community and anything you can do to make that happen, this is what we want.”
For the community, it was Circle Foods or bust. Boudreaux finally received funding from various sources, including state and federal tax credits, and $1,000,000 from the City’s Fresh Food Retailer Initiative. And now the store’s slated to reopen at the end of the month.
But people remember the old store as though it was yesterday. The place is described like a holy land by those who’ve lived in the area all their lives, such as Erica Foy: “You can’t go nowhere else, when the Circle Food store is right there in the heart of the neighborhood!”
Because the store was so embedded in the neighborhood, one didn’t just shop there, but worked there, says Erica’s brother, Danny Foy. “When you got to be a teenager, that’s the first place you would go and get a job, you’d go see the owners, and they know you from the neighborhood, and they watched you when you was raised, so you knew you wanted to work at the Circle Food store, you know?”
In hiring employees for the new store, Boudreaux is taking applications from all over. But he’s giving preference to those who live in the neighborhood, and first and foremost those who worked at Circle before.
“Dwayne’s been trying to get this up since 2006. He just kept on. I think if it was anybody else it wouldn’t have happened,” says Ryan Hamilton, who was a Circle Foods store manager until he had to look for new work in 2005. “I used to call him at least 20 times year. What’s going on? How’s it look? Is it getting there? I just kept calling … and it’s finally here.”
Many older folks in the neighborhood have struggled to make groceries without a store nearby. Joyce Montana, the wife of Alison “Tooti” Montana, is 83 years old. She says that, because stores like Circle didn’t come back right away, many people who lacked transportation decided not to move back after the storm.
“A lot of houses have gone astray, like that house over there. When I first moved around there, they had people living in that, and it’s been sitting there like that for 10 years.”
Some also relied on Circle Foods to supply certain items crucial to their cooking. Patricia Richard says she misses the special brisket that only Circle Foods carried.
“I’m tired of traveling all over the city trying to find something because I know once they open, I can’t wait to get me some meat to make me a pot of soup. I haven’t made a pot of soup here, since … I can’t find the meat! Until Circle opens; I know they’re gonna have it.”
When asked what he absolutely had to bring back to the new store, Boudreaux said he knew exactly what people wanted.
“We’re bringing back the seafood that we always did, the wild game, the turtles that we’re known for around here that I don’t think anyone else is gonna do. And I’m out still trying to search for a few more vendors for my turtles. When we put our new case back here, and a couple of the guys asked what is this case for, a few of the guys said this is for the specialty items and people think that’s special cuts of meat. I’m saying, ‘No, that’s my pig tails and oxtails and my pig’s tongue, and different stuff like that that’s the specialties for this area.”
Ms. Pat and Ms. Joyce say they can’t wait to walk across the street, find their specialty items, and walk them back home. But what it really means for them is seeing the neighborhood come back, seeing people back in the streets.
“Most people who live in this neighborhood have been here practically all their life,” says Ms. Joyce. “If the Circle Food store opens, it gives them a chance to walk to the store, and on the way they will meet their neighbors and that will give them a chance to visit with their neighbors and find out what’s going on. It gives you something to get out and go to.”
Circle Foods is the first big redevelopment project on St. Bernard since the avenue was repaved in November of 2013. And the neighborhood was recently zoned as mixed use. That means it now has the same designation as corridors like Freret and Frenchmen streets, where business and residential can mix. Circle Foods hopes to be the first of many businesses that bring new life to this part of the city.
Circle Foods is scheduled to open at the end of this month, and is holding job interviews on site Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.