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As Tops prepares to reopen, grassroots efforts urge Wegmans to expand into East Buffalo

 Construction continued at the Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo July 11, 2022, days before the supermarket's operators announced it would reopen, two months and one day following a mass shooting at the location.
Michael Mroziak
Construction continued at the Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo July 11, 2022, days before the supermarket's operators announced it would reopen, two months and one day following a mass shooting at the location.

Tops Markets is set to reopen its Jefferson Avenue store on Friday morning, just over two months after a racially motivated mass shooting took place there. In the meantime, grassroots efforts are underway in an attempt to convince one of its competitors to consider building an East Buffalo store to help address an existing food desert.

Following the May 14 attack, Tops was forced to close the store, first to allow authorities to conduct an investigation of the attack, and then to remodel the interior.

In the interim, several community and human resource agencies stepped forward to provide healthy foods and services to neighbors who otherwise depend on the supermarket. The neighborhood is a known food desert, and that particular Tops represents the only source of fresh produce and healthy food options, as well as prescriptions and other essential goods, for many blocks around.

“We are able to fill in certain portions of it. We couldn't fill in the prescriptions and things like that, so that was a big loss for folks. But as far as produce, and everyday food items and stuff, I think we did a pretty good job of coming in and helping the community,” said Alexander Wright, founder of the African Heritage Food Co-Op. “There were a lot of us. It wasn't just African Heritage Food Co-Op. But we're still going from Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m., until supplies run out.”

In the meantime, community leaders including local pastors have been trying to encourage additional supermarket chains to consider opening stores in East Buffalo.

“We know the benefits of having access to quality groceries right we know the benefits with education with benefits with health and security with our communities. So we're putting a proposal in a big ask to have a Wegmans to be one of the spots that we have on our communities,” announced the Reverend John Sullivan, pastor of New Cedar Grove Life Changing Church in Buffalo, during a July 1 interview with WBFO.

There are other supermarket companies operating in Western New York – Dash’s, Market in the Square, Price Rite, Braymiller, and Aldi among them. But Wegmans, being one of the larger competitors, is the desired target of petitioners.  

Father Jud Weiksnar is pastor of Saints Columba-Brigid church in Buffalo, where hundreds of signatures have been collected urging the Rochester-based chain to consider a store in their neighborhood, recommending Towne Garden Plaza on William Street.

He says in addition to bringing another healthy food option to the neighborhood, a store of Wegmans’ size and reputation would also bring something else to the neighborhood – a more diverse customer base. He suggests in a segregated city such as Buffalo, the only occasions one may witness truly diverse groups in his neighborhood are at Sunday Masses and when the Slow Roll bike excursions pass through.

“If we had an Aldi at the Towne Gardens Plaza, people from the neighborhood would shop there, no doubt. But if we had a Wegmans there, people would come from the Old First Ward, from Larkinville, from downtown and from the neighborhood,” he said. “You would have a mix of people at a Wegmans that you would not have at an Aldi. If you go to the Wegmans on Amherst Street, you see that happening already.”

Wegmans, in response to WBFO’s request for comment, forwarded a statement in which they express their efforts to support the community, while also explaining why they have not built new stores in known food deserts, despite the many requests.

“We operate a high-volume, low-price business; we require a lot of customers shopping in our stores to achieve the volume needed to be successful," the statement reads in part. "We employ roughly 500 people per store to provide the high service customers have come to expect from Wegmans. We know from experience that this business model is not effective in all geographic areas. Bringing a high-volume retailer to these areas could potentially deter a smaller full-service food retailer – whose business model is a better fit – from moving in, or take business away from existing bodegas and small businesses in that area.” (Click here to read the full statement.)

Weiksnar doesn’t necessarily buy the argument that the larger supermarket would take business away, suggesting the big and small stores would still have a purpose.

“If I just wanted to get a bag of potato chips, sure, I could go to the bodega. If I just wanted to get a bunch of bananas, I get on my bike and I go a mile away to the Braymillers, which is downtown,” he said. “But if I want to get a can of shaving cream, a New York Times, a package of bologna, a bag of spinach, and maybe a few cupcakes, I have to go to Wegmans. I can't get that at the corner store.”

Wright has mixed feelings about whether Wegmans would be a good fit for East Buffalo. But when asked about whether larger supermarkets and smaller stores could co-exist, he recalled the Lexington Co-Op and Dash’s Market located in close proximity in North Buffalo.

“They seem to be coexisting. I don't know the numbers and how that works, though. But I think the Co-Op might get lost in between Wegmans and Tops here,” he replied. “It's not just about the Co-Op. It's about the community. If it's going to help the community more to have these two juggernauts here, then maybe that's what it needs. But that's not going to stop our plans. We're going to move forward.”

The African Heritage Food Co-Op is planning to open a brick-and-mortar store next summer. In the meantime, they and other community partners will continue to provide some supplemental food options for the Jefferson neighborhood over the next few weeks.

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