Lower Price Hill has historically been an urban Appalachian neighborhood, housing multiple generations of Appalachian migrants and their descendants from the 1940s through today. The main office of the Urban Appalachian Council was housed on West Eighth Street, the gateway to the neighborhood, and the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition remains deeply committed to the neighborhood. Like the rest of greater Cincinnati, Lower Price Hill has changed, and a mix of communities now calls this neighborhood home. Throughout its many changes, one place that has been something of a constant in Lower Price Hill is Meiser’s Grocery. This humble little neighborhood grocery has recently undergone some rather astounding changes. I got an opportunity to talk to Reba Hennessy who has been leading the charge to save and re-define Meiser’s Grocery.
Reba Hennessy is the President and Founder of Your Store Cincinnati. She has a background in non-profit development work beginning with WordPlay Cincy, one of UACC’s partners in its cultural work. Reba’s pre-history, as it were, is as a paralegal which introduced her to the many wheels that need to be turned to get things done with both the law and business worlds. As she said, “I learned quite a lot working as paralegal. It was working with elder law that I was introduced to philanthropic organizations.” From this she moved on to WordPlay which offered a fast but steep learning curve, ultimately landing with her current work with Meiser’s/Your Store of the Queen City.
Meiser’s had been in Lower Price Hill under its most recent ownership for about 50 years. They provided fresh vegetables and fruits, meats, and a deli counter for the neighborhood. After Meiser’s owners retired, there were concerns that the neighborhood would lose the local grocery, leaving something of a food desert in the community. This is where Reba Hennessy, the volunteers from Lower Price Hill, Community Matters and other advocacy groups stepped in.
For Reba, the process has been as arduous as it has been gratifying. “Price Hill Will purchased the building and began the repairs and renovations to bring the building up to code. This is was a huge but critical first step,” Reba said. Things really began before this, though, as members of the neighborhood got word that Meiser’s was closing. “As the neighborhood found out about the store closing, they formed the Neighborhood Action Team to see what could be done about saving the grocery store.” This grassroots person-to-person work brought several community organizations together to work with the neighborhood and form a real plan.
The Neighborhood Action Team put out surveys to find out what people needed and wanted in a neighborhood grocery. The results were not surprising. They wanted a place where they could buy fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, and basic cooking supplies. With the funding and a plan in place to save the grocery and the building, the next step was to find an operator. This was difficult because, “the only people stepping up to operate the store were convenience store companies who wanted to run the store as a convenience store. These places were unwilling to provide the things the neighborhood needs because these things are not profitable.” This left everyone in something of a bind.
Reba Hennessy did what a creative person does; she went around the problem her own way. “I went home and floated the idea of a non-profit grocery store to my partner,” she said. “I fully expected him to tell me I was nuts.” But this turned out to be precisely the right way to go. With her years of experience working with non-profits, she knew how to get this done. To get a sense of how to proceed, Reba started with the original store: “I looked at models of how to run the store, and I ended up using the model Carl Meiser used in the first place.” Reba Hennessy knows when to get creative and she also knows when to avoid re-inventing the wheel.
At the same time, the thinking that is going into Meiser’s/Your Store involves some distinctly 21st Century ideas. Reba Hennessy told me that “there is so much food history in Lower Price Hill. We want to connect the grocery to the food heritage of the neighborhood. We also want to focus on the infrastructure and ecology of the neighborhood.” Toward this end, Price Hill Will and others are helping to transform the entire neighborhood of Lower Price Hill from an economically isolated area to a neighborhood that is economically interconnected with the city and the region. “We are working with local food producers and business to business relationships.”
As of the time of our conversation things are on track to open. Reba Hennessy said that “we are getting the building up to code and working through the process of getting all food services up to code.” While Reba and all involved are working with the original model for the store, some things do need to change, including furthering the processes of collaboration that got the store going. They are “working on collaborations with discount food distributors and food reserve programs. Some of these programs are literally food in fields that did not immediately get harvested.”
Meiser’s Grocery and Fresh Deli and Your Store of the Queen City will be the first local grocery that has a pay what you can program. The Farmer’s Market, which began back in August, is on a par with any Famer’s Market in the region. The grocery and Your Store have been set to open in the summer of next year, though the pandemic will likely change this projected time frame.
Lower Price Hill has changed in multiple ways over the last few decades. But through the efforts of Reba Hennessy, the citizens of Lower Price Hill, and a host of advocacy groups the grocery that has been a neighborhood anchor will remain. Lower Price Hill will soon have Meiser’s Grocery and Fresh Deli/ Your Store Cincinnati as a place that provides access to a grocery that is accessible to all. The kind of work and advocacy we see from Reba Hennessy is precisely the kind of community engagement that characterizes what the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition envisions as we promote a decent quality of life for Appalachian citizens of Greater Cincinnati. These commitments extend to all the communities that now define Lower Price Hill and Greater Cincinnati.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.