Less than three years after customers were disappointed when an Oklahoma City grocer abandoned plans to upgrade its northeast OKC grocery store, community members are now aggravated by news the store will close altogether Monday.
“It’s just frustrating that people see our community as literally an opportunity zone, but we can’t get a local grocer to want to do quality business in our community,” said Chaya Pennington-Fletcher, a culinary arts instructor at Star Spencer High School. “It’s very disappointing. It’s this feeling of, ‘You are unworthy and undeserving.'”
Pennington-Fletcher, 39, is also a partner in Kindred Spirits, a bar and cultural hub opening later this year in the new EastPoint development three blocks west of the Smart Saver at 2001 N.E. 23rd St.
“You know that it’s busy when I go there for the one item I need and you can’t find a parking space or there’s a line all the way to the back of the store,” she said.
Formerly a Buy For Less under the same ownership, the store at N.E. 23rd and Martin Luther King Boulevard was converted to the Smart Saver brand in late 2016, but Pennington-Fletcher said the building has been a grocery store for her entire life.
“What is the justification for them closing the location?” she asked.
Answers to that question are unclear, but the store owners know people are asking.
Simone Graves serves as director of the executive office to the CEO of Esperanza Real Estate Investments, which is owned by Hank and Susan Binkowski. Their company operates the Buy For Less, Smart Saver and Uptown Grocery stores.
Around 4 p.m. Wednesday, Graves exited the northeast OKC Smart Saver store with a co-worker and a box of what appeared to be employee records. She had been meeting with employees inside but declined to discuss the store’s impending closure.
“We’re actually not ready for any statements to be made,” Graves said. “I do have all of the calls that we’ve been getting, so I’m keeping all of those, but we are not ready to make a statement to the press yet.”
Northeast OKC grocery store closure ‘going to deflate the economy’
Outside the store, customers were shocked by the news Wednesday. After completing his shopping, Gerald Perryman said he had learned of the store’s demise only five minutes earlier.
“It’s going to be a complete loss because this has been a part of the community since I was a kid,” Perryman said. “I used to stand out here when it was Humpty Dumpty’s at one time and sell the Black Dispatch.”
A farmer who said he planted some corn Tuesday evening, Perryman said he and other area residents will likely have to take their business to Otwell’s Food Store, an even smaller grocery operation about 12 blocks south on Martin Luther King Boulevard.
“This store has been real good, and I hate to see it go because people are going to lose their job,” Perryman said. “It’s also going to deflate the economy over here. It’s a bad situation for northeast Oklahoma City. I can speak for the people here.”
So can Pennington-Fletcher, who said she already does most of her shopping at another OKC grocery store because it features better produce and other fresh food options.
“I have access. I own a vehicle. I have income,” she said. “I’m paying cash for my groceries, so I have the ability to leave my neighborhood to have my needs met. But that is not the majority.”
The Smart Saver at 23rd Street and MLK Boulevard sits at the intersection of two Oklahoma City bus lines. Otwell’s is only along the MLK route, though a Family Dollar sits on 23rd Street just east of the Smart Saver store slated for closure Monday.
“They keep replacing grocery stores with Family Dollars, and I’ve got a huge problem with that,” Pennington-Fletcher said.
A ‘God plan’ or ‘thoughtless’?
The recent grocery store saga at N.E 23rd Street and MLK Boulevard is long and sordid in the eyes of many community members. When the Binkowski family scrapped plans to replace the northeast OKC store with an Uptown Grocery as part of the proposed King’s Crossing project, then-Councilman John Pettis criticized the decision.
“They are switching that brand to a Smart Saver,” Pettis said in September 2016. “When you promise the community you’re going to build an Uptown Grocery and the next thing they see you’re building a Smart Saver, to me that is a slap in the face.”
One year earlier, Susan Binkowski had written in a Q&A with NonDoc that the Uptown Grocery and King’s Crossing projects were “a God plan” that was supported by Oklahoma City and its northeast-side community:
We can’t own it because our vision was that we would take over a tired location and revitalize it, and then God had other plans — much, much bigger than we can comprehend. And honestly, in our own strength and resources, it will not come to fruition. It is a love offering that we have walked out in order to say, “I will come. Will you meet us there?” and the city and neighborhood has responded with a favorable “yes” so far.
I never want people to think that we ever operate without sound financial wisdom, but this project is a stretch on all fronts. That is why, if it was easy, someone would have gone before us and answered the call of a very deserved community.
Pennington-Fletcher said Wednesday that she spoke to Susan Binkowski before the company scrapped King’s Crossing.
“When I talked to Susan Binkowski one-on-one, I told her we don’t need an Uptown Grocery. What we need is a full-service Buy For Less,” Pennington-Fletcher said. “Put in a bakery, put in a deli that also sells sliced meats and cheeses, not just ready-made food that is killing my community — fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. Like, come on.”
Once the Smart Saver closes Monday, Pennington-Fletcher said her community will have even fewer food options. She noted that the relatively new Save-A-Lot grocery store near N.E 36th Street and North Kelley Avenue closed at the end of 2018.
“Access to food should not be relegated to a social class. Everyone deserves quality food,” she said. “This is 2019 in what is supposed to be the greatest country in the world, and you can’t get fresh fruits and vegetables in your own neighborhood.”
She also expressed concern that the Binkowskis will continue to own the large swath of land on the northeast corner of 23rd Street and MLK Boulevard without any public plan for improvement.
“Now you’re going to have part of the busiest corner in northeast Oklahoma City turned over to vandals and vagrants,” Pennington-Fletcher said. “I’d rather her be required to bulldoze the whole damn thing and make it be land than to just leave it there.”
She said the Binkowskis and their company owe northeast Oklahoma City an explanation.
“It’s thoughtless to do this. It’s devastating for our neighborhood not to have a good grocery store,” she said. “We’ve got to do better about how we treat marginalized communities as a whole.”
(Clarification: This story was updated at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 31, to remove a quote from Pennington-Fletcher concerning a food resource center. The quote’s context was implied incorrectly. NonDoc regrets the error.)