Tony Boparai’s 1-year-old daughter, Reejh, was inspecting shiny, green Granny Smith apples perched on the fresh produce island of Boparai’s brand-new Roman’s Market grocery store on Janesville’s south side.
Boparai, 31, smiled as he watched his young daughter toddle off with a fresh apple, which she called a “yum-yum.”
The little girl’s sentiment, “yum,” is one that many Janesville south- siders might share when the new grocery store opens this weekend at 2006 Center Ave.
Though the new store is small—3,000 square feet of retrofitted space in a former gas station—it’s the first full-service fresh food grocery to come to the south side since Pick ‘n Save shuttered its Center Avenue supermarket in 2017.
The grocery, which Boparai is opening in leased space, will offer south-siders fresh staples including fruit, dairy, meats and a deli.
It’s a spinoff from Roman’s Fuels, a local, family-owned chain of gas and liquor stores Boparai’s family operates. It’s the family’s first foray into running a grocery market.
It’s a project that has been in the makings since last fall. The store is now ready to open, and Boparai hopes it will bring convenience and much-needed fresh food to residents who have had to make do without a nearby grocery store for nearly half a decade.
Boparai thinks it’s a good sign that the two large-scale beverage distributors sought him out for supply contracts before the shop was finished. Boparai, a south-side resident, said that is an indication he found the right niche and the right location for a small-scale, independent grocery.
“Lots of people who have stopped by here to ask ‘When do you open?’ have walked up. They’re on foot, and there’s a bus stop right outside the store. It’s a busy spot for lots of different types of customers,” Boparai said.
The nearest supermarket to south-side residents is more than 2 miles away along a stretch of West Court Street that is separated from the south side by the Rock River and the Five Points intersection—two urban divides that city economic development officials say have placed parts of the south side in a food desert after Pick ‘n Save closed.
Over the last two years, a few grocers have shown glimmers of interest in bringing a smaller-scale grocery store to the south side, but city and county officials last year said it would cost a midsize grocer upward of $5 million to launch a small-format grocery store.
Convenience mart and gas station giant Kwik Trip has keyed on a few areas in Janesville that have a dearth of fresh groceries, including a new store the chain is building on the site of a former Sentry store on East Milwaukee Street that for a year and a half housed a Maurer’s Market.
Jeff Maurer, the owner of Maurer’s Market, briefly considered renovating space at the Rock County Job Center on Center Avenue to build a small-scale grocery to serve the south side. But Mauerer pulled the plug on that idea when he shuttered the East Milwaukee Street location in late 2019.
National analysts have told The Gazette it’s unlikely that major grocery chains would build a supermarket on the south side despite the sizeable population. Analysts think that smaller-scale stores like the new Roman’s Market could make a go on the south side, but larger grocery chains now prefer to develop supermarkets within a larger cluster of similar retailers.
Boparai said he is not having trouble so far launching the store’s inventory. Most shelves are stocked, and he has fresh fruits and meats that will be on the way daily.
So far, Boparai said he has found that some items he would stock are still on short supply or on allocation, a holdover from a hoarding trend grocers have seen off and on since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But he said a few key distributors who will supply his shelves have structured agreements especially for a small-format store.
The location wasn’t Boparai’s first choice; he looked at buying vacant land just south of his family’s Roman’s gas station near the Five Points intersection, but he said he couldn’t spur the owner to sell the property fast enough, and he got tired of waiting.
Boparai said others in the local convenience and grocery business encouraged him to move ahead with a small grocery on the south side.
“They told me they feel it is a gold mine if you could get supplied right. Because there’s really not competition down here,” he said.
It doesn’t take long to tour the small store. It has a deli that will serve fresh meats such as pork chops, hamburger and steaks, fresh sandwiches, and handmade deli sides.
A few local bakeries, including a cheesecake shop in downtown Janesville, plan to supply Roman’s Market with specialty items. That is something Boparai said he is proud to see happen.
“I think it’s important to support the others in the community, the other small businesses. They’ve been the ones hit the hardest by this pandemic,” he said.
Boparai figures he will have at least three dedicated staff running the shop—maybe more if it’s busier.
For now, the store has one checkout lane. Boparai said based on the number of people checking to see when the store opens, he wonders now if the one checkout counter will be enough.
“It’s the little things,” he said, hooking his finger at an array of taco shells, which reminded him of another taco-related item he had recently forgotten on his last trip to a supermarket: sour cream.
“When you’re doing tacos, you always forget the sour cream, you know?” Boparai said. “So we’ll remember to have that here for you.”