• New owner takes aim at downtown ‘food desert’ while continuing to provide fresh organics and produce
By Eric Howanietz
The 320 Store, a Rockford landmark providing fresh produce and organic foods, is now accepting LINK benefits.
The store was recently taken over in October by Indra Rathod, known as “Al.” Previous owner Dennis Bragelman retired after 20 years, but his mother Helen and sister Diane Kinipper still work there, along with longtime employee Tony Bautista.
Al said he talked to the previous owner about two years ago about whether he wanted to sell the store. At that time, Bragelman wasn’t ready, but the two stayed in touch, and eventually, Al got the call. Al’s idea was to reopen as a small grocery store, adding fresh meats, along with an expanded selection.
“The reason I came here was there was no grocery store downtown,” Al said.
Discussion of “food deserts” in Rockford also contributed to his idea of an expanded grocery store for the downtown area.
Bragelman’s business was slowing before he retired, and Al felt if he opened the selection, it would bring more people in.
“Before, it was only produce and organic products,” Al said. “I want to keep all of that, and continue adding more.”
New shelves and a different layout have put a lot more general groceries on the shelves at 320 Store, but Al insists “all the produce is still here, all the organics are here still, all the good and fresh stuff is still here.”
Al is committed to providing fresh, organic produce and organic products.
A few people didn’t like the new changes, but Al shrugs it off and says, “when there is a new owner, there is always going to be change.”
Al is continuing to establish relationships with locally-sourced farmers and is even excited about opening channels with Rockford’s community gardeners.
Al doesn’t feel the 320 Store is competing with the nearby Noble’s Grocery Store because of the focus on produce at 320. In the next few weeks, he plans on adding a fresh meat market that he states will include organic meats. During our interview, he even stopped to discuss a deal with two gentlemen looking for a couple hundred pounds of beef.
The 320 Store is known for its downtown lunch crowd from the courthouse. Now that the weather is improving, he is seeing more of them coming in again. But, he says, the harsh winter was really difficult for the store, and “for two months, it was really hard to keep produce moving.”
In the first week of January, the store started accepting LINK benefits.
“A lot of people didn’t like it when I started accepting LINK,” he said. “Rich people didn’t like poor people in their store, but to me, everyone is the same.”
The 320 Store sits on the dividing line between Rockford’s Third and 13th wards. These are one of the richest wards and one of the poorest wards in Rockford.
For many years, 320 Store never accepted LINK benefits, and just the next street over to the west, Noble’s Grocery Store did. It was an obvious divide in the community, and only accentuated by the fact that Noble’s Grocery carried a wide selection of ethnic and soul food products.
“Food is food, and everyone should be able to eat healthy food,” Al said. “If we can provide the freshest fruits and vegetables, we will do it for everyone.”
The store also claims to have prices comparable to local Schnucks and Walmart stores.
“They sell a 99-cent head of lettuce — we sell a 99-cent head of lettuce,” along with a whole litany of prices per pound that Al tallies off. He makes an effort to compare prices in other stores and keep prices as low as he can.
Al and his family have managed grocery stores before in Peoria, Ill., and Atlanta. He has lived in Rockford for 10 years, and is ready to build the 320 Store for another 10 years.
The 320 Store is at 320 N. Court St. Hours are 7:30 a.m.-7 p.m., Monday-Saturday. In the coming weeks, the store will also be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays.
From the March 19-25, 2014, issue