Keenan Gorgis has a problem. How can he get more local residents from the Curtis Park and Land Park neighborhoods to come to the Curtis Park Market? It’s a question he’s been working on nonstop for two years, since becoming co-owner and manager of the formerly moribund corner store located at 24 Street and 2nd Avenue.
It didn’t take him too long to hit on a solution that appears to be working quite well: craft beer.
Walk into Curtis Park Market today, and you’ll find a selection of local and regional craft beers and ciders that dwarfs the offerings found in most small stores and puts many large supermarkets to shame.
Big Daddy, Double Daddy, Arrogant Bastard, Racer 5, Racer 10, Six Rivers, Two Rivers, Crispin, Ace, Julian, VooDoo, HopHead, Rampage, Ninkasi, Firestone Double Jack, Firestone Wookey Jack, Dogfish, Harpoon, Full Sail … the list goes on, and rotates continually, as new craft brews leave and enter the market. When local brewing company Track 7 began bottling its beer, it appeared almost instantaneously on the shelves at Curtis Park Market.
Gorgis is on his game, and he has to be, because running a small neighborhood store has never been an easy business and is even less so today. The 27-year-old native of Burbank wasn’t given a lot to work with when his business partners first approached him two years ago.
“They wanted to make it a grocery store, at first,” he recalled. But one of the first things he had to do was throw out more than half of the dry, canned, refrigerated and frozen goods on the shelves because the dates had expired. Focusing on groceries alone didn’t appear to be in the store’s immediate future. “So I asked myself what I could do to get some Curtis Park and Land Park people in here. I tried craft beer, and it worked.”
You don’t have to take just his word for it. I’ve lived in Curtis Park for the past seven years, and in addition to the neighborhood’s magnificent Craftsman and Tudor homes and its towering oaks and elms, it also boasts two small markets within easy walking distance: Taylor’s Market and the Curtis Park Market. Not that too many people were all that keen to walk to the Curtis Park Market when I first moved here.
Founded in 1957, Curtis Park Market was the original Compton’s Market, a family-owned grocery store that eventually grew into a successful local chain of 8 stores. Over time, the chain was whittled down by competition from supermarkets, and the family sold its last remaining store, at 4055 McKinley Boulevard, in 2010, although it still bears the family’s name.
In addition to competing with large supermarket chains, the Curtis Park location also had to contend with Taylor’s Market, which is arguably the best small grocery store in Sacramento. If you live in Curtis Park and want to walk (or take a short drive) to get produce, meat, decent beer and fine wine, you go to Taylor’s. As Gorgis tells it, the Curtis Park Market just couldn’t compete, and slowly slid into decline.
That decline was readily apparent when I first moved to Curtis Park. Like most of my neighbors, I go to Taylor’s for groceries. But Taylor’s doesn’t sell cigarettes, and I smoke. So at least four times a week for the past seven years (in between failed attempts at quitting) I’ve made the two-block trek to Curtis Park Market.
It was a journey once fraught with peril, of a sort. Mainly, this had to do with the gauntlet of spare-changing transients waiting at the store’s entrance. I’ve always found it hard to say no to panhandlers, and no sooner would they strip me of my change than they’d be lined up at the register with cold 40-ouncers of cheap malt liquor. In lieu of quitting smoking, I learned fairly quickly to not carry spare change. The rest of the nonsmoking neighborhood? They just never made the walk. Despite at least three changes in ownership, this state of affairs only got worse.
The same went for the grocery selection. The produce, if there was any, was always spoiled and wilted. I once dug a box of frozen fish sticks out of the ice on the bottom of the freezer that had an expiration date of August, 1999 on the package. I asked the then-owners to please keep the frozen Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese in stock, so I wouldn’t starve to death.
Then Gorgis arrived on the scene, the old groceries were thrown out, the craft beer began replacing the malt liquor, and slowly but surely the scene began to change. Gorgis is a big guy, 6-foot-three and a damn fine basketball player (he once showed me a video of himself sinking repeated 3-point shots well outside the arc). But it’s not like he gave the transients the bum’s rush, although I have on occasion observed him to politely ask them to leave the premises. No, what happened seems to me to be totally counter-intuitive:
As a newer, more-upscale clientele began to patronize the store, the transients began to melt away.
To be sure, some of them are still around. But it’s no longer unusual to bump into my neighbors at the store. The employees at the DMV offices up the street are no longer afraid to come down to the store on their lunch breaks, or stop by on the way home from work to pick up some microbrew or fine wine. Well-dressed executives in fancy cars turn up on their never-ending quest for Pliny the Elder (not in stock right now, sorry gentlemen).
So things are looking slightly up at Curtis Park Market, and It’s not Taylor’s Market that Gorgis is worried about at the present moment. His craft beer selection has eclipsed Taylor’s, and his selection of fine wines at least rivals it. His new problem is, “How do I get the residents of Land Park and Curtis Park to stop driving to Total Wines on Arden?”
Indeed, “America’s wine superstore,” a nationwide chain of giant warehouses stocked with just about every libation known to man, all sold at discount prices, is a formidable, and perhaps unfair, competitor. So what’s a small store owner to do?
The cleverest sales gimmick Gorgis has come up with so far is the “Sixer Mixer.” You like IPAs but your friend prefers stouts? Select individual bottles of each of your preferences off the shelf and make your own six-pack. Prices start at $1.79 per bottle. Gorgis has a hard time keeping the shelf stocked.
On the wine side of the equation, you can buy six bottles and receive a 10 percent discount.
The Sierra Curtis Park Neighborhood Association has approached Gorgis and expressed its desire to see the store become the thriving small market it once was back in the day. Gorgis shares that desire, and sees the craft beer business as a means to that end. But there is still much work left to do. The guts of the building are old, with faulty wiring and rundown equipment that has to be replaced piece-by-piece as it malfunctions. The store had long stopped selling produce by his arrival, and the produce section is in dire need of repair.
“I want to sell fresh produce, but no matter how fresh it is, people aren’t going to buy it if sits on a rusty shelf,” he explained. “Right now, I’m just selling groceries and food things that I’m not going to have a problem with.”
That means dry, canned, refrigerated and frozen goods, and even those have given him problems. Last summer, the main compressor went out, and Gorgin and one of his employees went up on the roof and replaced it themselves. Things have stabilized somewhat since then, and now there’s a decent stock of groceries—with dates that haven’t expired!—including frozen Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese, my sole contribution to the inventory.
Funds remain tight, but plans to upgrade the store have not been put on hold.
“My dad’s a carpenter, and we’re planning to redo the whole store, one section at a time,” he said.
His parents are immigrants, his father from Syria, his mother from Greece. He grew up in Southern California, where after graduating high school he earned a business degree from UCLA. He was successfully managing a small grocery store in Burbank when his current business partners asked if wanted to co-own and manage a small corner store in Sacramento.
“I came up here and I liked it,” he said. “I knew I could live here. What I like about Sacramento is that there are no celebrities. Well, not as many (he chuckles). Not everybody wants to be a producer or a singer. People are more genuine.”
And apparently these people have an unquenchable thirst for craft beer. Whatever brand you’re looking for, you’ll more than likely find it at the Curtis Park Market.