Market makeover: Belmont store has new lease on life
For more than 100 years, Belmonters have shopped for groceries and goods at the Belmont Market on Monticello Loop near Mas. But with the arrival of upscale convenience stores such as Tiger Fuel's "Markets" at Forest Lakes and Bellair, and Patricia Kluge's Fuel less than a mile away, the fate of the Belmont Market seemed uncertain.
Now the tiny neighborhood convenience store has a new lease on life, thanks to 24-year-old Noman Vohra, who began running the business in February with his parents Ali and Mehrunisa.
"They know how to market and provide customer service," says Janet Hatcher, who grew up around the Market after her father, Herman Dorrier, purchased it back in 1943 and ran it until 1968, when he began leasing the business. She inherited the store and the large home across the street following his death in 1999, and has continued to lease the Market it to various proprietors in the intervening years.
"It's very important to me," says Hatcher, "to keep it as a store."
The most recent proprietors, Trudy and Tommy Lynch, who live in the same building as the store, took over operation of the business in 1999, fulfilling a lifetime dream for Tommy, who worked as a stock boy at the Market in the late 1950s. [This story in its print version contained an error which had been corrected online. –ed.]
But after six years behind the counter, the Lynches were ready for retirement, and the younger Vohra saw an opportunity he didn't want to miss.
"I needed something for myself," says Noman, a 1998 graduate of Western Albemarle High School who most recently worked for US Airways.
The grocery business is not new to Noman, whose parents ran Spencer's Market on Fifth Street and other stores in Chicago. Almost having the business in his blood, Noman decided to give the Belmont Market a go.
Hatcher is thrilled with the results so far.
"We've seen the traffic increase markedly since February 15," she says, a fact she attributes to the Vohras' friendliness– Noman is "such a people person," she says– and to the renovations the Vohras have undertaken at the store.
On a recent visit, the changes are startling. Where once an old wooden counter stood at the front of the dark interior, the walls are now painted white and new shelves are stocked with "all the groceries the neighborhood needs," says Ali. The front counter and display has also been completely rebuilt.
In addition, they have installed new air conditioning, new lighting and plumbing, and extra coolers for the wide selection of beers.
They slashed certain prices– "Our [Newport] cigarettes," boasts Ali, "are the cheapest in all of Charlottesville." He points out that the secret of a small neighborhood market's success is low prices.
"A small margin gives big volume," he says. "We want to sell more."
Ali is also clear about the mission of the Belmont Market: It is not competing with upscale convenience stores like Fuel.
"We cater to people with food stamps," says Ali.
But in ever-gentrifying Belmont, where upscale tapas bar Mas is packed every night and a recent house sale topped $400,000, it's important for the store to diversify to meet the needs of its well-heeled neighbors.
Belmont resident Lindsay Cook says she's been pleased with the Vohras' response to her requests.
When she asked that the Market carry a specific beer– Pilsner Urquell– she says the Vohras ordered it and continue to keep it in stock.
And she says they remember little details about their regular customers.
Visiting the store one day, Cook says she told Noman she had misplaced her daughter's recently lost tooth. With the tooth fairy needing to make a visit, both she and the Vohras scoured the floor looking for the missing molar. Cook later discovered the tooth in her car, and she forgot all about it. Noman, however, remembered three weeks later when she next stopped in.
"It was neat that he followed up on it," says Cook.
And while Cook reports that some in the neighborhood would like a market that carries produce and more alternative brands, she believes the Vohras will listen to all neighbors' needs.
"They would be responsive to letting the market evolve," she says, "into whatever it becomes."
Ali and Noman Vohra. Noman took over the Belmont Market in February.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
Janet Hatcher poses in front of the Belmont Market holding a picture of herself at age three at the store that she inherited from her father.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO