Two months ago Cleo’s Bodega Grocery and Café opened on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, giving area residents access to healthy, affordable foods.
“Cleo’s is named after Cleo Blackburn,” Sibeko Jywanza, manager of Cleo’s grocery store, said. “He was executive director of Flanner House for 30 years. … He really created a way for people to fend for themselves when it comes to food. That’s the sprit that we have.”
Sponsored by the nonprofit Flanner House, Cleo’s has two sections: a small grocery store and a café. Not only does having two sections allow it to cater to both the neighborhood’s food scarcity and social needs, but it also makes economic sense. The grocery store can make up for slow months at the café and vice versa.
The grocery store section has several aisles with traditional grocery store products such as cereal, chips, frozen food, eggs and milk. It also carries some local products such as Londo’s Flameade. A highlight is its temperature-controlled aisle of fresh produce grown by Flanner House and other local gardens. The aisle offer bags of apples, corn, oranges and other produce for less than $6.
According to Jywanza, Cleo’s is the only place to buy fresh produce in a two-mile radius. Until Cleo’s opened, those living in the area had to drive or walk elsewhere to buy healthy groceries after the Double 8 grocery store in the area closed in 2015.
“I appreciate the fact that there is fresh produce in this area now,” customer Robin Jackson said. “All we had was the gas station for years once Double 8 closed.”
The café section sells coffee, smoothies, pastries and sandwiches. One of the most popular items is the grilled cheese sandwich made with butter from Chef Oya’s The TRAP. Cleo’s managers know that the vibe of a café is often as important as the coffee, so the space is decorated with paintings from local artists and brief inspirational messages such as “I am courageous” printed on pieces of paper.
“I don’t even go to Starbucks anymore,” Tia Swain, a regular, said. “It’s easier here. … I feel like the music, the culture and the people that frequent here are more in tune with how we spend our lives, what we do.”
With both indoor and outdoor seating, the café is a convenient place to have both social and professional meetings. Jywanza said Cleo’s is the only place for people to sit down and enjoy coffee and a meal for 46 blocks, so it serves as a new hub for the neighborhood where people can sit and interact.
“Creating a place where people can stop by is important,” Swain said. “What I love is that it doesn’t’ have to be a touristy or a trendy place for it to be a place that meets the needs of lots of people”
Earl Townsend, manager of the café, said an important part of Cleo’s first two months has been outreach. Townsend wants to assure local residents that Cleo’s isn’t an outside entity looking to exploit the area for profit. It’s run by locals for locals.
“It’s about allowing the community to understand that we are here, and our agenda isn’t the same as other entities,” Townsend said. “This isn’t something that is a new pop up. We are in collaboration with Flanner House. … We really are here for a different agenda than people think we are, which is no agenda. We don’t really have one rather than to see the community thrive.”
Townsend believes the best way to prove his intentions to customers is through service to them. For example, he tells employees not to call patrons “customers” or “guests” but “neighbors” because that’s often what they are.
“Our staying power comes from relationships,” Townsend said. “We just don’t want to be an entity that takes up a lot on a certain block in a certain neighborhood in a certain city. We want to cultivate relationships with the neighbors that come into here. We want to get to know your names.”
Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.
Visit Cleo’s Bodega Grocery and Café
Looking for affordable groceries or a place to grab coffee after work? Stop by Cleo’s.
Where: 2432 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St.
When: Hours for the grocery store — 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Hours for the café — 6 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Information: Grocery store — Call 317-932-3100 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cafe — Call 317-932-3361 or email email@example.com.