Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

End of an oasis: neighbourhood's food desert grows

A depressing finale for a grocery store that began during the Great Depression and was a lifeline in one of the city's poorest communities

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After 75 years, this is what's left of the family business: an empty shell of a building, a stack of bills and the crisp grey photos of what was.

Earlier this month, Riediger's Supermarket quietly closed its Isabel Street doors and parked its delivery trucks. There just wasn't a way to make the business work anymore. "I'm always trying to think of a way to save the place," murmurs Nick Riediger Jr., sipping a straight black coffee.

But all that thinking hasn't found a way to warm the coldness of the math. "I don't think there was one year where our sales went up, for 20 years," Nick says. "But the cost of business never goes down. And the longer we stayed open, the deeper we were sinking. I couldn't live with bankruptcy. I couldn't live if I did that to our creditors."

Along with his brother Ken, Nick is the third generation of Riediger men to run the store. He grew up at the grocery. His parents even lived above the shop for a while, and after high school he naturally followed in his father Nick Sr.'s footsteps. When the elder Riediger died four years ago -- he worked right up until the end, even after he had to start using a shopping cart for a walker -- the brothers took the reins.

In doing so, they inherited a Central neighbourhood institution, one of the city's most enduring family businesses and one of a handful of independent groceries left in the city. They kept the store's traditions alive; for instance, right until the end, they extended credit to their customers.

Now that keeps Nick up at night, trying to figure out a way to recoup some of the accounts that were left unpaid. "It probably wasn't the smartest business practice to do," Riediger says, with a short, sad smile.

But you can't really change something like that. It was just the way things always had been done.

-- -- --

In 1926, following the path of so many Mennonite immigrants, a storekeeper by the name of Henry Riediger Sr. left Russia and arrived on the Canadian prairie. He set up on a farm in Saskatchewan but struggled to find his feet in the fields. Ten years later, he moved to Winnipeg and opened a little grocery on Isabel Street.

The Great Depression was still raging, and poor European immigrants clustered in the stately old neighbourhood. From behind a horseshoe counter, Riediger served them with slabs of ham and vegetables. If a customer couldn't pay, Riediger didn't make them; instead, he scribbled their names in a ledger beside a list of the things they had taken and the money they owed.

So that's how the credit thing got started.

The deliveries started near the beginning, too. In 1945, Henry Riediger Sr.'s son Nick, a Royal Canadian Air Force officer, returned from the Second World War with a $5,000 severance payment. It was a huge sum for the time, and Henry made his newlywed son a proposal: Invest it all in the grocery, and they'd build a new store with Nick as a partner. Nick and his wife Betty decided to hitch their fortunes to his father's dream.

The next year, the Riedigers threw open the doors to their brand-new supermarket at 188 Isabel St. Signs posted by neatly arranged pyramids of tinned milk alerted customers to a new way of shopping: "Serve Yourself," they read.

At the time, the place was fresh and modern and buzzing with life. There were three full-time butchers to cut parts of whole hinds of beef to order. Up to three delivery trucks criss-crossing the city. Cash registers clanging well after dark on Friday nights.

The Riediger family settled in and raised their children there and did whatever work needed to be done. Each December, old Henry would sit in the back, tying twine around the packages of German Christmas candies the store shipped to immigrant families in rural Manitoba. Later, the Riediger boys would spend their nights delivering 40-kilogram sacks of flour on their bicycles, pedalling furiously over the Salter Street Bridge.

In winter, the Santa Claus Parade would pass down Isabel, and Nick Jr. and Ken and all their cousins would scamper onto the shop's roof to watch the floats pass by. "It was our life," says Nick and Ken's mom, Betty Riediger. "The store was really very good to us for many, many years."

Seventy-five, to be exact, until it just could not go on.

-- -- --

"We are going to miss them more than we can possibly imagine," Wanda Bruenig says, pauses, and then lets the memories loose.

For years, Bruenig, the executive director of Freight House Early Learning and Care, relied on Riediger's to feed the 96 children in her programs. Many of their families are poor, so Bruenig makes it a priority to feed them solid food: milk, fresh veggies, healthy sandwiches.

Riediger's extended Bruenig's daycare credit, so any employee could pick up food if needed. They delivered it all, too.

Now it's gone. There aren't many other grocery stores in the neighbourhood, certainly none that will give credit or deliver. Bruenig's business now goes out of the neighbourhood, to another independent grocery that will make the trip. "Riediger's was there for us," she says. "With them closing, it totally has to change the way we think and the way we do our business."

But Bruenig, at least, can handle the change; so can the community centres that shopped there. So can the 25 schools in the North End and around Central that relied on Riediger's for their milk deliveries. The people Bruenig worries about are the rest of the residents.

"Our families have to get on the bus and go to who knows where (for groceries)," she says. "Or they can go to 7-Eleven, who kills you with costs. You think of wanting families to eat healthy? They're not going to. They're going to go and get Chicken Delight because it's the only thing that's there for them."

This is an old story, nothing new. The disappearance of good food from the inner city began in the 1960s as supermarkets began staking out cheap land in the suburbs to build ever-bigger stores. The growing buying power of the big guys kept prices low; those customers who could make the trip loved the savings. After awhile, people got used to not knowing their butcher's name.

In time, the chummy corner grocers faded from the urban streetscapes and fast-food and convenience stores popped up to take their place. What is left is a grocery hole in the middle of cities. It's called a "food desert." The people searching for an oasis are usually the poor. But could nearby ethnic food stores such as Young's help fill the void?

According to the 2006 census, almost 7,000 people live in the three neighbourhoods immediately adjacent to where Riediger's stood. Over a third of households live below the poverty line. As many as one in four workers relies on the bus for transportation. There's not much for them close to home: Over the years, bank branches have disappeared from this neighbourhood and small businesses have shuttered.

"Mobility and access is an issue," said Allan Wise, executive director of the Central Neighbourhoods Development Corporation. "We have a good number of subsidized housing, with people who have no access to cars. We have a lot of seniors' homes. Having Riediger's move out of the area, that might be a concern for those folks with less access and less flexibility."

Bruenig is more blunt. "I had several of my parents go, 'Oh my God, what am I going to do?' " she says. "I don't think most people have any idea what it's like to live like that. A lot of my parents don't have bus fare. That's why their kids don't make it to daycare sometimes. And if they can't walk and get their groceries, then what are they going to do?"

-- -- --

Nick Riediger Jr. thinks about this as he picks away at the never-ending work of winding down the business. "I know the way that people depend on us," he says. "But it just wasn't enough."

It's hard to say when things started going downhill. Mostly, it declined with the fortunes of the neighbourhood. Sales peaked in the 1980s before coasting down to earth. They adapted by building relationships with new customers in the neighbourhood, such as Dufferin School and Bruenig's childcare program. But the walk-through traffic couldn't keep up with the rising cost of business.

At first, there was a bit of a buffer: As those old European immigrants grew more affluent, they moved out of the area, "but people would still come back to the store," Betty Riediger says. "Back then, we didn't have all these Sobeys and Costcos."

Plus, the customers came back for the company. Even after all these years, Betty Riediger can still list the names of the families who lived next door to the store, the customers who invited the Riedigers to a funeral or a wedding or a party. So many customers became friends, and those friends have not forgotten.

And there, in the quiet after the eulogy for Riediger's Supermarket and the way of life it fostered, is something they can take away. "If my dad was around, he'd probably be like me," Nick muses. "Missing the customers, the relationships. We were very close with them. You knew them, you know their kids. You'd hire their kids when they were old enough to work."

"We'll never forget them."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2012 A6

History

Updated on Saturday, January 28, 2012 at 11:16 AM CST: Corrects Central Neighbourhood Development Corporation

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