Grocery open: For how long?

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Owner fears loss in African population

Courier staff writer

OTTUMWA — A new grocery is expanding the tastes available for residents of Wapello County. For how long, however, remains to be seen.

Habesha Grocery Store opened less than 10 weeks ago, said owner Muluebrhan Haile (nicknamed "Jumbo"). The most difficult part of opening was getting the coolers in the store on East Main Street: It was quite an adventure, he said, requiring about five moving men. But he was happy to open and to serve his fellow east Africans: "I have a lot of years in the grocery business," he said.

Haile came to the United States from Eritrea 10 years ago.

"In all that time, I never see a place like Ottumwa," he said. "It’s small, peaceful. I never see crime. It’s very nice."

He has a small selection for now: red lentils, spices, date cookies and two kinds of African bread, including the injera used as a plate and an eating utensil in Ethiopian dining. And his selection of prepared beans, all vegetarian, is impressive: The cans inform buyers whether the contents have fava beans, chickpeas or both, and if they use the Saudi recipe (a bit spicy, interesting international merchandise, but not at the same level as those who need these ingredients for their everyday cooking. Sioux City, he said, now has an Ethiopian restaurant and a family planning to open a second one there.

"Groceries start out being for the east African people, but restaurants are for everybody," he said. "I think Ottumwa will get one [restaurant] soon. They are working on one on Main Street."

In the meantime, he may wind up following the friends who held various nongrocery jobs in Ottumwa — and had encouraged him to open the small shop.

Morris said the community benefits from people who come here and start a business.

"My preference would be to increase the population," Mo! rris said.

"I like Ottumwa very much," said Haile. "And I do not want to move that cooler again! But do I have a choice?"

City Administrator Andy Morris says he’s unaware of a mass exodus of east African people. But if a large percentage of people leave from one group, he said, "you may feel the difference."

It’s hard to know specifics using public information, including the U.S. Census.

"We won’t come up again until 2020," said Sharon Stroh, director of Ottumwa Economic Development. "But there was something done in 2015. They do a midpoint count, [although] it’s not door-to-door, between that 10 years."

That simply gave overall! population, which won’t tell us definitively how many Ottum! wa residents born in Ethiopia or Eritrea (that’s what Habesha, the name of the store refers to: A unity amongst the people of that region — and a word related to the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia) have left the city — or where they’ve gone.

But Haile says it’s a lot and that Habesha people from around the nation are heading to Sioux City. Haile added Americans will buy said the owner), the Lebanese style, Palestinian beans or some other style.

"I have a shipment coming in from Africa with more choices, more products," he said Sunday.

The store, though open, remained quiet. Haile said he worries that a new beef packin! g plant in Sioux City, about four hours away, has been draining his customer base. It opened about the same time as his grocery store did. And some Ethiopian employees at that new plant have been calling Ottumwa friends and relatives to tell them about what a great new factory this is.

"There’s an ice cream plant, too. They treat their employees very good, they are telling me," Haile lamented. "A manager from there came to Ottumwa to hire people. Our people are very good workers. Now, is my plan messed up already? The items here, they are for the East African people. If they are moving out, what will I do?"

He said seven friends left last week. He believes many families have gone in the past few months, though

A specialty grocery store proclaims itself open.

But the owner says his mainly east African clients have been moving out of town at a rate t! hat has him worried.

Mark Newman is at MNewman@Ottumwacourier. com and on Twitter @CourierMark.

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Ottumwa Economic Development Corporation 217 East Main Street Ottumwa, IA  52501
Phone 641-682-3465 Fax 641-682-3466 |