Neighbors’ Market, which promises to focus on healthy food options, is expected to open its doors in East St. Louis this month.
The market will be a full-service grocery store with a dairy and frozen food section, a robust produce aisle, and a butcher’s area for cutting fresh meats daily. The store has already employed its own chef, who will prepare soups, salads and sandwiches.
Sterling Moody, co-owner of Neighbors’ Market, said the reason behind the store’s fresh food emphasis is the store is located in a designated food desert, which the federal government defines as a neighborhood that lacks healthy food sources.
The store is located near the corner of Bowman Avenue and N. 15th Street, where the former Eco Market was. That store lasted for four months, and the space remained vacant for two years.
Moody said that means finding fresh produce is a particular challenge.
“I don't know how many miles it is where you can just go buy a simple banana,” he said. “Just a simple green bean. Just a simple produce item. It's just not available."
Moody said he hopes offering healthy options will allow Neighbors’ Market to be a staple within the community.
“We're trying to get them to label this as their grocery store and just take ownership in it,” Moody said.
This is not Moody’s first time in the grocery store business. He made a name for himself in the late 1990s by establishing grocery stores in underserved communities in the area: In St. Louis, one was in the Baden neighborhood and the other was on South Grand Boulevard. They’re now both closed. Last year, Moody tried to open a store in Cairo, Illinois, but that never happened.
And Moody’s financial past raises questions about the viability of his latest venture. He acknowledges a history of going into debt, and mismanaging money. A civil judgment in 2016 required him to repay a Missouri woman $62,500 for a variety of reasons including offering and selling "unregistered, non-exempt securities."
Moody maintains he’s not solely to blame for his misfortunes. One of his stores caught on fire. A former business partnership went bad, and as a result he was forced to give up the other store. And his former business partner, Zeyad “Steve” Abdeljabbar, was sent to prison for conspiracy to commit arson and mail fraud.
So, Moody acknowledges he has a lot to prove with Neighbors’ Market.
“The main thing, you know, is everyone loves a success comeback story,” he said. “So it don't matter who is doing this or who is saying this, the success will wipe out all that crazy talk.”
A fresh start
This time around, Moody is taking a different approach funding this store: A $325,000 loan from IFF, an organization that provides financing and real estate consulting to nonprofits, and food and affordable housing projects in nine states including Illinois and Missouri.
David Desai-Ramirez, the executive director for the southern region of IFF, said he’s well aware of Moody’s financial record.
“Yes, we are concerned,” Desai-Ramirez said. “We feel like we've done many, many months of analysis and have put a little bit of belt and suspenders around the project in a way that we're trying to give (Neighbors’ Market) and Sterling and the community sort of the best chance to have a thriving grocery store for the next foreseeable future."
Although IFF approved the loan for Neighbors’ Market, according to Desai-Ramirez, the loan is not in Moody’s name. Neither Desai-Ramirez nor Moody would identify the associate.
Moody appears to have support from people around him, including his resident chef Marca Rottnek. Rottnek said, although she is aware of his past, she believes in Moody’s commitment to serve East St. Louis and the surrounding communities.
"I happen to know for a fact that he's surrounded himself around greatness,” Rottnek said. “Some people that he has in his corner that are managers, are people that I've been working with prior to having met Sterling."
Setting up an independent grocery store is a tough business to get into, especially in a food desert, said Michael Hair, an assistant professor of marketing at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
"Is the store going to be near public transportation? And also the business hours,” he said. “You know are they going to be open 24/7 so that you know consumers who work night shifts or whatever can make it or are they going to make it or are they going to open a limited time of day?"
In addition, Hair said, because stores like Neighbors’ Market are independent, they lack the buying power and financial support of a national chain.
Neighbors’ Market does have its advantages. It’s located across the street from the Emerson Metrolink station and is beneath apartments for senior citizens.
“I know it's going to work,” Moody said. “We have funding. We have operating capital. We're going into a good lease. So this is a good situation."
Moody plans to open a second store in East St. Louis by the end of this year.
Follow Marissanne Lewis-Thompson on Twitter @Marissanne2011.