Fresh food and “connectivity” coming soon to Front and Norris

A small grocery store and cafe with free wi-fi, take-out or eat-in American and Middle Eastern dishes and free community space is set to soon open at the corner of Front and Norris streets, beneath the Market-Frankford El.

Mike Ahmad and Walid Mustafa will open the doors of their 5,000 square-foot establishment, called Liberty Choice, in early-April.

Taking a break from their preparations last month, the men said they will offer groceries, including fresh produce; freshly-squeezed juices; breakfast options – including breakfast pizza, eggs, meats and waffles; panini and other sandwiches; soups; a salad bar; and pizza and bread from a brick oven. Middle Eastern favorites will include hummus, falafel and herb-flavored teas.  Mustafa, who recently sold his Northern Liberties pizza shop, will run the kitchen.

Wireless internet and a free meeting space for community organizations and teachers, students and parents from the nearby Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, will also be available.  

“We searched around the neighborhood, and it seems to us this will be a good business here,” said Ahmad. “You want to make the community happy.”

Ahmad and Mustafa’s plans for this key corner at the Fishtown/Kensington border have already done that.

“It’s a total home run,” said New Kensington Community Development Corporation Commercial Corridor Manager Henry Pyatt. Pyatt’s organization has targeted Norris as a key connector between Frankford Avenue and the El, and the store will bring activity, light and security which will make the corner safer, he said. The area will be especially important when school isn’t in session, Pyatt said, because a well-lit, fenced-in passage to Frankford Avenue through the school property is locked when the school is closed.

This isn’t Philadelphia’s worst corner, said Amy Miller, secretary of East Kensington’s zoning committee. But like other places beneath the El, “drug dealing and prostitution are present,” she said. “ A legitimate business open in the evening will make people feel safer.”

Ahmad said the store will likely be open from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. or midnight at first, perhaps staying open longer on the weekends. Depending on business, it could eventually stay open 24 hours a day, he said. An armed security guard will be on site from 4 p.m. until closing, or, under the 24-hour scenario, until the sun comes up.  Ahmad, who lives a few blocks away from the store, said he will also have the property under video surveillance that can be viewed from his home.

Ahmad is renting the building that houses Liberty Choice from his father, Kenny Ahmad, who with relatives founded the Cousin’s Food  Markets, located at 233 W. Lehigh Avenue, 203 E. Allegheny Avenue and 1023 W. Erie Ave. Kenny Ahmad no longer works in the grocery business. Prior to opening his own business, Ahmad was an employee at the W. Lehigh Avenue store.  (Cousin’s Food Markets Inc. is not related to Cousin’s Supermarkets Inc., which has stores at 5th and Berks and 5th and Luzerne in Philadelphia, as well as Camden.)

There was some disagreement in the community over whether a business open in the wee hours would increase or decrease problems, Miller said, but the security guard helped alleviate some of those concerns. And at a joint meeting of Fishtown Neighbors Association and East Kensington Neighbors Association, residents voted 16-1 to support a zoning use permit for a convenience store with hot and cold take-out and seating for 40.

Miller and Pyatt both expect hungry CAPA students to stop by. “It will be great for students after school to be able to shop there, especially if there are healthy options,” Miller said. “Healthy options and fresh-made food are really positive. Right now, there’s just chips, Tasty Cakes and soda.”

Miller said neighbors were pleased that the store would offer fresh produce, juice, and other healthy options. There are grocery stores relatively near by, but they don’t stay open late, she said. Other convenience stores are open late, but have no fresh foods, other than a few apples or bananas.

Out walking on a recent afternoon, couple Jesus Marrero and Carmen Feliciano, said their neighborhood could definitely use a place like Liberty Choice.  Feliciano said it would be nice not to have to go as far to get milk if they run out at night. Both were excited to learn of the prepared food options.

“It will be good for us,” said Michael Houvardas, who lives nearby and had stopped at Diaz Tire Shop across Norris Street.  Through Alex Houvardas, who acted as an English-Spanish interpreter, tire shop owner Armando Diaz said the new store would be good for him. “Instead of bringing food from his house, he can pay a few bucks and get something hot there,” Alex Houvardas said.

Anyone who wants to stay at the store to eat can sit at a few, window-side tables in the lower level or in tables on the open, second-floor mezzanine. One portion of the mezzanine will be closed off from the rest, to provide meeting or gathering space for 10, Ahmad said.

In nice weather, Ahmad said customers may choose to sit outside in what is now a triangle of cement. He likes gardening, and wants to transform it into a park-like space.

Had the owners not offered the green space, Miller said she would have asked for it. And she was pleased the owners are willing to work with the community on the landscape design.

Pyatt believes the store could become a “zipper between neighborhoods.”

There are many Hispanic residents, and, in lesser numbers, Middle Eastern residents, living west of Front Street, he said. Neighborhoods east of Front Street are traditionally home to people of European descent. “While it is more racially mixed than it was 20 years ago, there are two very different groups of people living on either side of that store,” he said.  The store could be a place of “cross pollination,” encouraging financial, business and friendly relationships across Front Street, he said.

Food, particularly late night food, can facilitate such things. “There is never a more primal situation than three in the morning and that hunger that you feel,” Pyatt said.

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