Months after the Whittier district lost one of its last bodegas, Andrea Leo opened Sun Market at 2201 North Lafayette Street to fill the void. Leo worked in the hotel industry for eighteen years, behind the bar at Ginn Mill and the Park Tavern when it was shabby. Recently, she has been working in real estate, but while in quarantine in 2020, she found herself wishing there was a place nearby to collect essentials. While the area isn’t technically a food desert, residents like Leo can afford to visit a traditional grocery store like Safeway or Sprouts, which are just over a mile from central Whittier.
There were more options. Over the past decade, at least three local bodegas have closed in the Whittier district, and a larger grocer called Downing Super recently closed. There remains a small market, Gem Food Mart, at the edge of the neighborhood at East 30th Avenue and Downing Street.
The old Scott’s Market at East 31st Avenue and Williams Street opened in the 1990s and 2010s; the barricaded building still has its inscription, although it is half missing. Both Ben’s Super Market at East 28th Avenue and York Street and Lincoln Market at East 25th Avenue and Gilpin Street closed more recently. The old Ben’s is likely to become a local bar; a company called Ephemeral Rotating Tap applied for a permit for the space, which was being renovated. The former Lincoln Market location is still available for rent, said John Livaditis, president of AXIO Commercial Real Estate, which owns the building.
While he would like to see another market open at the address, he says it has been difficult to find interested parties despite speaking to Choice Market, Marczyk Fine Foods and Spinelli’s Market, the latter two of which have operated markets. specializing in Denver neighborhoods since the 90s.
One of Spinelli’s current co-owners, John Moutzouris, told Livaditis that markets are likely not to be interested in space, as there are many hurdles in this type of business. âIt’s a challenge of scale,â says Livaditis, noting that it’s hard to make enough money to compete with grocery stores, even if there isn’t one in the immediate vicinity. âI would love to set up a market of any shape there,â he says, but the space is more likely to become a restaurant.
Leo received similar advice from Spinelli’s other co-owner, Pete Moutzouris, as well as its original founder, Jerry Spinelli, who owned the market with his wife, Mary Ellen, for two decades. But despite the warning, Leo persisted, and in July quietly opened up the Sun Market, named for the amount of sun the south-facing storefront receives. âI wasn’t thinking about the profit margin,â says Leo. “It was just good. I still think it’s going to work.”
Sun, which Leo describes as a cross between a bodega and a high-end market, offers both basic and the unexpected – intentionally. On the shelves you’ll find French’s Mustard and Heinz Ketchup, Advil and Band-Aids, and Dial Soap and Deodorant. But you will also discover marzipan, brought especially for a neighbor baker. Near the cashier are Strawberry and Matcha Pocky and small bags of Fritos. In the fridge, next to glass bottles of Coca-Cola, is Ramune, a Japanese soft drink that opens with the sound of a marble. “I have it because the kids love it,” notes Leo.
Canned brown bread is on the shelf because she was curious to try it (she says it’s good toasted with butter). There are organic gluten-free edamame pasta on the same shelf as 99-cent bags of traditional dry pasta. A whole range of Asian sauces and spices, as well as specialties like jackfruit in brine, are inspired by Leo’s love of cooking. There are refrigerators with cold dairy products, meats and a selection of products. Products have been the most difficult items to transport so far, says Leo.
The shelves seem a bit sparse, but that’s also intentional. As she meets and talks with neighbors, she orders items they are specifically looking for. She plans to keep stocking the shelves and has room to expand. Leo recently added a freezer and gets fresh bread every Friday. âThis store is going to fill up,â she explains. âIf a neighbor asks me, I mean, ‘Yes, I have it. “”
There’s also a section with locally made gifts, children’s toys and books, wrapping paper, inexpensive greeting cards, and cooking utensils.
A few weeks after opening, Leo added an outdoor table and chairs to the patio, which she hopes to use for small community gatherings like pop-up markets or the occasional food truck. She also hopes to transform the back room, which currently serves as an office and play space for her children, into a delicatessen.
Although market affairs can be difficult, Leo, with his bright smile and sunny yellow apron, looks on the sunniest side of the street.