Avenue B Grocery & Market stands the test of time and corporatism

Michael Fraser

In an area replete with Jimmy John’s and convenience store gas stations, the existence of a privately owned mom-and-pop grocer and delicatessen stands as a defiant anachronism. Since 1909, Avenue B Grocery & Market, located at 44th Street and Avenue B, has served the Hyde Park community quietly and consistently, remaining unfazed by waves of corporate development.

“When 7-Eleven, Circle K and UtoteM and all of those chains started looking for locations, where’d they pick? Major intersections,” said Ross Mason, current owner of Avenue B Grocery and UT alumnus. “Well, we happen to be back here in the middle of the block.”

This insular location fostered Avenue B Grocery’s development into something of a living museum. Today, the building looks almost identical to how it does in photos from decades past. Superficially, the facade has remained unchanged, with old signage advertising everything from Coca-Cola to farm feeds and ice cold beer, plucked straight from the annals of history. The prices of simple necessities such as milk, eggs, flour and assorted deli meats have been maintained at a surprisingly low cost to the consumer, well below that of similarly sized convenience stores.

The store has had to adapt to many changes over the years, not least the 10 distinct ownerships it has seen over its century or so. Mason has been at the store since 1984, and when he acquired the building, it looked as though the location was about to have to shut down. Previous owner Libbey Stefka had decided to quit running the store when her husband and business partner Bill passed away in 1983. It subsequently passed into the hands of the couple’s realtor, Frank Zamora, who was without any store management experience and did not have the desire to take control of the store, Mason said.

When Mason came to Avenue B Grocery, he was looking for a job to satisfy his yearning for the old home-style groceries his family went to when he was growing up in small-town Texas. Fresh out of UT and coming into his mid-20s, he read a story on Bill and Libbey and their work at the grocery in The Daily Texan and sought the owner out. The store needed assistance, and Mason had the grocery experience that Zamora lacked. When he took control of the store in 1986 with the backing of his brother’s investment, he knew he wanted to preserve the traditions of the establishment.

It hasn’t been easy maintaining the homegrown candor and product affordability of the store over the years. When Mason took over, he expanded the delicatessen services that previously amounted to Wonder Bread basics. The draw of the sandwiches has at times eclipsed the reputation of the groceries themselves.

Mason is all too familiar with this misconception.

“People rush in here and say ‘I need something to eat, I haven’t gone to the grocery store!’ And I will say ‘You’re at the grocery store. What would you like?’” he said.

All the same, the delicatessen has played a fundamental role in the profits of the business. Unfortunately for Avenue B, growing competition from sandwich shops in the area such as Schlotzsky’s, Quiznos Restaurants and Jason’s Deli, along with the addition of sandwiches to the retail of such businesses as Quack’s 43rd Street Bakery and Central Market, have split the consumer base in the area.

On one front, Mason has sought to ease the growing costs of maintaining the store and preserving its roots by seeking out documentation and evidence of its historical value. Though the structure comprising the store has existed in its current location since 1909, Mason has reason to believe that it may have been transported from another location prior to its placement in Hyde Park.

If verified, that would contribute to his quest for a historical marker. Mason believes that the history of the building is rich enough to merit some distinction, but with manpower stretched thin enough as is, the question has been placed on hold.

“Has anyone ever had the question, ‘How old is the chain of 7-Eleven?’ And then they tell you about their oldest memory of a 7-Eleven? No, of course not,” Mason said, “But we get that all the time. Sometimes it’s like you need an employee just to be a tour guide.”

For now, Mason continues to run the business as he always has, with the metaphorical door wide open. When customers come in, they tend to linger just to chat outside on the porch. Sandwiches still pull in a steady stream of customers, but the unknowledgeable consumer might be surprised when they realize how affordable the groceries in the store are. High convenience stores’ markups are unlikely to be found, and it is through this devotion to service and traditional standards that Avenue B Grocery walks the walk.