In a city trying to get any grocery store into certain black neighborhoods, the only black-owned and -operated Giant Eagle in the city is still struggling after four years in the East Hills -- so much so that some patrons have recently raised false alarms about its future.
Deborah Hickman, owner of the Verona Road Giant Eagle, says that well-meaning customers have sent a spate of e-mails saying the store was "in danger of being closed due to inadequate business."
The e-mails aren't justified, Hickman says, "But we are struggling. I'm in the red." After the e-mail false alarms, Hickman felt the need to send out letters to people in the surrounding communities to find out how she could improve services.
East Hills, on the edge of the city and bordered by Penn Hills and Wilkinsburg, is 93.8 percent black, the eighth-highest percentage of the city's neighborhoods, according to a 2002 report from the University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research. It's also one of the poorest in the city, with just over half of its children living in poverty. Homewood, whose residents shop at the Verona Giant Eagle, has even higher rates of black population and poverty.
Hickman had hoped for shoppers from a three-mile radius that encompasses municipalities such as Monroeville, Edgewood and even Fox Chapel. But those areas already have grocery stores. Hickman's store is one of 78 non-chain Giant Eagle franchises, compared to 138 corporate-owned stores -- although there is no difference in price among them and no restriction in services to franchise stores, says Giant Eagle spokesperson Dick Roberts.
Customers such as Jennifer Jackson of Homewood shop at Hickman's grocery "too much," she says. "There's always good service, it's always clean, it's always stocked up, the workers are very professional and when you see Miss Hickman she always speaks. The [Get Go] gas station helps too."
But the station hasn't helped Hickman, she says, though hers was the first non-chain in the city to have the popular gas outlets, where consumers can use "Fuelperks" gas discounts earned from their grocery purchases. She doesn't see a penny from the gas sales or the convenience store accompanying the pumps, she explains, and it hasn't increased her store traffic. The location also lacks other features that might help, such as an Eagle's Nest child-care center. East Hills and Homewood have the highest percentages of households headed by single females in the city, according to the 2002 Pitt study. But Roberts says space dictates whether Giant Eagle will offer this amenity in a location. Hickman's 27,000-square-foot location is far from the city's biggest.
While Hickman says she didn't anticipate turning a profit in her first few years of business, she's still well below the sales estimates she made in 2002 -- about "$100,000 off our weekly projections" of what they need just to "break even and keep the bills paid."