ATLANTIC CITY - A crop of new convenience stores and minimarts has opened in recent months along the resort's business corridors, filling darkened retail spaces with fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and other food staples.
Among the mostly immigrant entrepreneurs are Rafiqul Mojumder, Shahadat Hossain and Abdul Quader, who joined together to open Brighton Grocery & Produce at Atlantic and Brighton avenues earlier this month. They were still determining prices last week for some of their products, many of which cater to the community's Asian, Hispanic and Haitian populations.
"You got water?" a customer asked Mojumder, who was standing attentively behind the register.
"You want warm or cold?" Mojumder responded, leaving his post to show the new customer a refrigerator stocked with drinks. "Whatever you need, we'll get it for you. We're here for you."
Mojumder, of Atlantic City, is eager to please in his latest venture - he owned other similar businesses a few years ago but sold them, he said. This store has a walk-in freezer filled with chicken, lamb and goat meat. The aisles feature masa mix for making Mexican tamales and popular spices and dried goods used in Asian cooking.
"People will go wherever there are better prices and better product," said Mojumder, a Bangladeshi immigrant who also works as a casino slot attendant.
While convenience stores and small groceries saturate the city, competing against one another, they also are filling the void created by the lack of a major supermarket chain. The last one to open, the IGA at Kentucky and Atlantic avenues, shut down in early 2006 after the store's operator had problems with high rent, ongoing theft and an owner's death.
The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which owns the former IGA site, said last week that it and the city have reached an agreement with A&P to bring a Food Basics supermarket there. The chain is described as a no-frills, discount operator, with about a dozen stores in northern New Jersey, Philadelphia and New York.
Atlantic City's "grocery gap" is a phenomenon typically found in low-income and inner-city communities. A 2002 study by the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College in Los Angeles examined why supermarkets do not set up shop in such neighborhoods.
The supermarkets cited lower profitability, high crime rates and unfavorable consumer behavior as barriers.
But the report said it is up to the supermarket operators as well as the public sector to ensure residents have access to full-service groceries that also can offer higher-quality goods and affordable prices.
"A commitment on the part of the supermarket to provide equivalent quality food and costs per item comparable to suburban middle-income locations could provide a baseline for improvements in these areas," the report states.
Food Basics' Atlantic City location would open about eight months after a lease is signed, which one CRDA official said is expected to happen in the "very near future."
"We need a supermarket because the prices in some of these places is high," 19-year-old Gloria Hernandez said as she shopped at the Quality Food Market, which opened on Atlantic Avenue a year ago. "We can go to the Pathmark (in Ventnor), but not everyone has a car like that."
About a dozen blocks away is the NA Food Mart on Atlantic and California avenues. Owner Manjit Kaur opened the store in August in a renovated retail building still partially vacant. Among her products are canned foods, bags of rice, cereal and tortillas.
Kaur is not sure whether a supermarket would drain her profits, but she makes a point to mark down her prices just under what other minimarts have. For instance, while a nearby business had a gallon of milk for more than $3, hers was down to $2.89.
She previously worked at a business on the Boardwalk but wanted to try running her own store.
"Maybe God will be good to me," she said softly.
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