One of Seattle's landmark locally owned stores is closing after more than three decades. Word around the neighborhood is that it will be replaced by a chain drug store. Placing blame for the loss is complicated.
In 1984, Joe Cohen took a risk, got an SBA loan and opened an upscale grocery and deli at Fourth Avenue and Lenora in a very different Belltown. He named it after his father, Ralph.
Over the next 31 years, that risk was rewarded as the area attracted more residents, Amazon staked out its headquarters towers a couple of blocks away and Ralph’s Grocery & Deli became a beloved institution.
Local customers love its gourmet offerings and deli — so do cruise-ship passengers and tourists staying at nearby hotels, such as the Warwick, Westin, and Andra. Workers at nearby restaurants dash to Ralph’s if they run out of some basics. Grocery shoppers can walk from their condos, setting aside the ball-and-chain of a car.
You can eat breakfast from the breakfast bar or a deli sandwich in an inviting dining area or, in the summer, out on sidewalk tables under lovely hanging plants. Need a great wine or flowers at the last minute? Ralph’s has you covered. It’s open until 2 a.m. The day staff is especially welcoming and friendly, the neon sign an enchanting beacon at night, the interior spacious and Seattle-themed. It has been a model of the fine-grained human things that give a city life. (It was featured in my Fourth Avenue appreciation in 2013).
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All this and locally owned.
Lately, a visibly distraught stream of customers has been faced with a new, unwelcome product: goodbye. Ralph’s is closing at the end of this month.
This afternoon, I spoke with an emotional Cohen, who said he “had been blessed in a career that I had wanted since high school. I enjoyed almost every single day. After 31 years, it’s time to turn the page.” He said he wants to spend more time with family, vacations and volunteer work that wasn’t possible when he was running the grocery. “Work is no longer my focus and that’s something I thought I would never say.”
Cohen said he would most miss the people, customers, his son and employees — “I am forever grateful to them, especially Tonette, Gladys, April and Alison. They deserve the credit.” He’ll also miss the neighboring businesses: “We stood like brothers” — and the help of the Seattle Police (the store was robbed only once in its history). “I can’t give enough thanks to our customers, and they helped put many of our employees through college.”
Cohen, who is keeping the land and building, promised Ralph’s will be replaced by a “world-class tenant that the neighbors will really enjoy.”
I hope that’s true. But Ralph’s, like many other Seattle institutions lost in recent years, is irreplaceable. And, aside from restaurants, most are not being supplanted with something as genuine, with heart and sense of place and local owners.
I don’t have easy blame to offer. This is certainly a sign of a less authentic Seattle; with other losses, the result is more plastic, sterile and homogenous. Amazon’s not the culprit, at least directly. Neither is gentrification. Both richly rewarded Ralph’s with new customers. I certainly can’t begrudge Cohen. And what bright young person would take his 1984 chance today — the money’s in programming and finance?
The grocery business, with its thin margins and giant cartels, is especially lethal to a concept such as Ralph’s, which is larger than a bodega. The average large city had hundreds of individually and locally owned supermarkets as late as the 1960s; now the highly consolidated chains that ate them up are themselves the target of Wal-Mart and Amazon. None of these institutions has the unique stake in a place that’s held by an individual local owner.
And yet since 1984, Cohen and his employees kept faith with the neighborhood, the city and his customers — through three recessions, including the last one which he told me put the store’s survival in question. Yet it came back, lasting far longer than anyone had a right to expect. That it seemed such a permanent feature of Belltown makes this goodbye all the harder.