Oklahoma City Ward 7 Councilwoman Nikki Nice says she is still waiting for answers.
Nice wants to know why the Smart Saver grocery store closed at Northeast 23rd Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard, but she didn’t receive any answers this morning while standing in the store’s parking lot with vans prepared to transport potential shoppers four miles west to a Walmart neighborhood market.
“I know they like to get on Facebook and comment on posts,” Nice said of the grocery store chain’s owners. “But I’m still waiting on a phone call back from last Wednesday, and I haven’t received one. That means to me they are not committed to this community.”
Nice was joined by Fairview Baptist Church Pastor John A. Reed and others committed to their community on the first day after the longtime grocery store closed Monday. Nice had helped arrange public transportation — an EMBARK partnership with Airport Express, for now — from northeast OKC to the Walmart grocery store on Northwest 23rd Street just west of Pennsylvania Avenue. Reed also had a church van on site Tuesday morning in case additional transportation was needed.
Currently, scheduled transportation windows are from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
“That’s the best we can do right now. We’re going to measure this week, see how it goes, see how we can improve and make it better until we get some better options,” said Nice, who has worked with community partners to list northeast OKC food resources online.
‘Just get off the property’
While Nice and Reed somberly soaked in their community’s new reality, employees from the Smart Saver worked inside the store, packing items briefly before most left around 7:25 a.m. The Smart Saver brand was launched by 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.
Questions about the company’s decision to close the typically busy northeast OKC grocery store went unanswered last week, and an attempt to ask management about the situation Tuesday morning was also rebuffed.
“Here’s what you can do for us,” said a man who declined to provide his name. “You can go ahead and just get off the property so you’re not interfering with any of our employees.”
Moments later, the same man opened the store’s front door for the majority of gathered employees to leave. One woman referred to him as “Larry.” According to LinkedIn, a man named Larry Evans serves as “perishable director” for Buy For Less and has worked for the company since 2004.
On Sunday, store co-owner Susan Binkowski commented on a Facebook video that featured Reed, Nice and Pastor Derrick Scobey discussing the grocery store. Her comments stand as the primary public explanation for the store’s closure, though she appears to have been responding to specific statements made in the video.
“Smart Saver and Its Leadership has not chosen to weigh in because it ultimately is NOT ABOUT A GROCERY STORE!” Binkowski wrote. “It is about a community that has been overlooked, and UNDER-RESOURCED for far too long. This is just the beginning domino if steps taken are not leveraged for the benefit of all.”
Binkowski commented multiple times that she believes transporting people to other stores will not be necessary, and she made references to delivering groceries for people. It remains unclear what Binkowski may have meant about grocery delivery, and the Smart Saver Facebook page has only issued posts about free two-liter bottles of soda since word of the store closing spread last week.
“There only need be the rudimentary need to communicate or explain (if needed) how to order their groceries,” Binkowski wrote on the video post.
‘Is it closed forever?’
Tahri Greasham and her 11-year-old son, B.J., arrived at the store Tuesday morning only to be shocked by a sign saying it had closed.
“Is it closed forever?” Greasham asked. “I think that it’s crazy because they barely have any stores over here at all anyway.”
Reed introduced himself and confirmed that Greasham had transportation available to reach other stores.
“It’s a closer store,” she said. “I didn’t want to travel too far. Walmart wasn’t open when I was out earlier at 5 a.m. on the other side of town.”
Asked his thoughts about the grocery store closing, B.J. Greasham pondered the question briefly as his mother instructed him to stand up straight when speaking to people.
“It shouldn’t have closed down,” B.J. Greasham said. “It’s a good grocery store, but I do not care.”
His mother and Reed laughed, with Tahri Greasham hypothesizing that her son’s opinion would change “when it’s his own gas money.”
“I wish they’d get a decent store that would stay open over here on the eastside,” Tahri Greasham added.
Nikki Nice: ‘I don’t want it to become blighted’
Reed shares the sentiments of Greasham, and he expressed concern about what the store’s closure will mean for lower-income family members who often do their entire grocery shopping for a month at a time.
“We have a number of residents that used this store. Many of them are older citizens, and many of them really don’t have transportation. So the store was in walking distance of them and their homes. So this creates a tremendous strain and problem, especially for those without transportation.”
Reed noted that nearby Otwell’s Food Store “is much smaller than this store,” meaning many people “will have to leave the community now to shop for food.” But he said the Binkowskis can do whatever they want with their private business.
“Number one is, whatever you say and whatever you think, it is their property and they can close whenever they want to. And they can close without giving notice,” Reed said. “We wish they would have because if they had done that because people could have prepared for some other way to get to grocery stores.
“There’s really nothing we can do about that. I haven’t talked to the owners at all, so I don’t know whether it was a sudden decision on their part or whether they had been planning it for a while and had just not advertised it. But it was a tremendous shock to the community.”
Nice also said her community was shocked, and she said she is concerned about what happens with the property moving forward.
“I don’t want it to become blighted. That’s the main concern. We don’t want the area to become an eyesore to the community because morale is already a concerning part of the conversation,” Nice said. “My commitment is that our community will not have to continue to look at this structure in this way.”
Nice said the high-traffic intersection is perfect for a grocery store, but she said she does not know what will happen moving forward because the Binkowskis own more than 20 acres on the northeast corner of Northeast 23rd and MLK Boulevard.
“The unfortunate piece is that it’s not going to be a fix for tomorrow. It’s obviously going to be months in transition,” Nice said. “I know there have always been conversations that there could be some pieces of the property that are not environmentally sound. But we do know the hard corner is available for redevelopment. If nothing else, we can redevelop where this store sits.”