Community Culture Life Memoir New Orleans News Non-fiction Urban Neighborhood

My memories and thoughts on New Orleans only Black-Owned grocery store, Circle Food Store. Is the Black Community to blame for the failure of Black Businesses??

We wonder why black businesses have a hard time keeping their doors open. We tend to blame every other race, the government and the list goes on, but there is a separation happening amongst us. If we were to commit to supporting one another then maybe we can keep those trillions of dollars cycling within our families and communities. But that would mean we would have to stop viewing each other as competition and rid ourselves of jealousy. Our own jealousies, competitiveness, unwillingness to support one another and pettiness with other black people is what’s keeping us from moving forward.

I’m pretty sure you all have heard the news about the possible closing of the only black family grocery store in New Orleans, Circle Food Store which has been a prominent fixture of the Treme neighborhood for almost 80 years. Circle Food Store, known to its regulars as the Circle, is a remodeled version of the St. Bernard Market, one of a dozen that was scattered around New Orleans.

Circle opened in 1938; it was the first African-American owned grocery store in New Orleans. The grocery store was named after the traffic circle that used to exist at the intersection of Claiborne Avenue and St.Bernard Ave. The entire “circle” of the neighborhood which was lined with beautiful oak trees was bulldozed away to make for what we know now as the I-10, but thankfully Circle Food Store would remain as a constant reminder to the neighborhood that we can own and run our businesses. Source: Tulane University “Saving Circle Food Store”

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Source: Pinterest

Back in the day Circle Food Store was like a mini family reunion venue, because one was sure to run into friends and family when they were there.

I remember being a little girl, feeling proud as we walked through the aisles of Circle, not only because we were with my Daddy, but it felt like we were valued. Everyone seemed to know him, and the people who he ran into would talk about their businesses, black empowerment, and The Lord. The interactions were always loving and positive. They would share what was going on in their lives; I do not recall any gossip or fussing, just happy feelings. The ladies would meet me face to face and say “George your girls are beautiful and well mannered” and always seemed to give me a piece of butterscotch or peppermint. The whole experience assisted in who I am now and my love for the people of New Orleans. My Daddy was a business owner as well. He owned the 1st black business on Canal St, a beauty salon, which was named “Raisins” after my favorite childhood snack. Eventually, he would open up three more throughout the city.

Our trips to Circle and the introduction to more black entrepreneurs in the late 70s and 80s was proof that black people could own businesses and homes. Back then the schools didn’t teach black history as they do now. The history books were filled with pages of wealthy white people who owned everything even the houses the black people lived in. Black people were always pictured as slaves or workers, never given adequate credit to the so-called “black assistant” who I would learn years later was the inventor and creator of whatever we were being taught. Even the drive from uptown to Treme gave the impression that all black people were and did work for rich white people, especially as we drove down St. Charles Ave. It took for us to go past Canal Street to see black people operating their businesses. Therefore, walking in this huge grocery store owned by yet another black person was the proof I needed. It’s one thing to be a little girl and believing that your Daddy and Mama were capable of being business owners, but to see other men and women owning businesses, holding powerful positions control of the clock and living in big beautiful homes as well. Seeing this left a great impression on me and inspired me to be an entrepreneur as well.

Like many of us, I remember the Annual Circle Easter event. The sidewalk and store were filled with little girls and boys decked out to the nines in their brightly colored Easter dresses and suits. My Mama would dorn our hair with big bows and hairballs, lace socks and Patton leather shoes; it was like an outdoor kids fashion show lol… We all were excited to see the Spring bunnies and chicks, wondering about in search for candy and colored eggs. Circle Food Store was the epicenter all things New Orleans Easter back then. My basket couldn’t contain all my Elmer’s Candy favorites and chocolate bunny candy, so I would eat one when I was given or found another. I remember having a Daddy’s Girl moment; I had to be about seven yrs old, crying and begging “Daddy, please I need the bunny, I need it pleaseeeee!!” My tantrum worked, I got the bunny! A few days later I woke up to my dog chasing the bunny to the state of a heart attack, well that’s how I want to remember it. I recall my Mama telling Blackie to “drop it.” I would get a chick the following year only to sneak it outside to show my friends and kill it within hours. I hid the chick in my jacket pocket, and I would pull out a dead girl as my friends huddled around me… I think I either suffocated it or broke its neck. This has me wondering if the chickens we see around the New Orleans neighborhoods are a product of runaway chicks from the Circle Easter giveaways… I have to Google that or make up my theory lol.. I recall my Mama telling me stories of being a child, growing up with chickens, going out to their eggs as needed for meals, leaving some to hatch. She would realize as an adult that the best fried chicken she ever tasted was the same chickens she took care of as a chick… Maybe, that was the plan for my little chick lol.

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Today I feel disappointed by the news of the possible closing of this family-owned historic grocery store. It’s another fail as I see it and the debate of who’s at fault can fall upon all of us, from the government, the family, the community and Mother Nature in my eyes. The owner of Circle had his share of lousy business blows since Hurricane Katrina.

Today, I’m speaking on black business, particularly Circle Food Store knowing that all small businesses have it hard to stay afloat. I wonder why it’s so hard for black businesses, and it seems that after we finally found our perfect niche, the ideal business concept there’s a battle to get past everything after that. From feeling intimidated of creating a business plan, the fear of the bank and city legalities. There’s this mountain that other races seem to conquer faster and easier than us to open a business. Once we have reached the top of the business mountain, feeling proud of our accomplishment, there’s the slow and sometimes fast fall into the struggle to remain open. My heart breaks especially when I see the closures of businesses that were opened by our ancestors? The blood, sweat, love, and tears of our ancestor’s hard work were left, entrusted to us to continue their legacy, somehow manages to die with them…
You mean to tell me that in 1938 a black family, who we know had to endure all the ills of the not so “Free Colored People Years” successfully opened the only black grocery store in this beautiful now historic building in New Orleans is at risk of closure??? Why? The Boudreaux Family accomplished back in the 1930’s what is still unheard of in 2018. Per my findings, there are only 5 African American owned grocery stores in the United States…

  1. Calhoun Foods Grocery in Montgomery, AL: has more than five supermarkets and over 300 employees throughout Alabama. It was founded by Greg Calhoun in 1984.
    Apples and Oranges Fresh Market in Baltimore, MD: Michele Speaks-March and her husband went from the funeral business to the grocery business in 2013.
  2. Apples and Oranges Fresh Market in Baltimore, MD: Michele Speaks-March and her husband went from the funeral business to the grocery business in 2013.
  3. Leon’s Thriftway in Kansas City, MO is also a Black-owned grocery store owned by entrepreneur Leon Stapleton, who opened the store back in the late 60’s. He is currently 90 years old, and his children and grandchildren run so day-to-day operations.
  4. Giant Eagle in East Hills, Pittsburgh, PA which is a grocery store chain established after World War I, by three Pittsburgh-area families—the Goldsteins, Porters, and Chaits—built a grocery chain called Eagle Grocery. In 1931, OK Grocery merged with Eagle Grocery to form Giant Eagle, which was incorporated two years later, but African-Americans own this location.
  5. And of course, our Circle opened in 1938, it was the first African-American family owned grocery store in New Orleans. Source: https://urbanintellectuals.com/2016/06/22/list-of-5-black-owned-grocery-stores-in-america-to-support-know-of-any-others/

Circle reopened in 2015 after the owners, their family and the community advocated for help to get the store up and running again after they were able to revive the building after it drowned in the waters of Hurricane Katrina. The building was able to sit in near ruins eight years later, undergone millions of dollars of restoration, only to be flooded once again in 2017, because of the Sewage and Water Board pump failure.

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Source: https://www.bestofneworleans.com

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Source: carriere-stumm.com

I imagine it was like an entrepreneur’s dream come true when he unlocked the doors that day. Circle overcomes adversity. In the pictures the owners head and shoulders are held high as if he was thanking God and while his ancestors looked on proudly admiring the magnificent restoration of the newly renovated Circle Food Store. The owners tried just about everything to attract old and new customers by adding additional services even new entrepreneurs were welcomed in the historic building. They were back in business, and I’m pretty sure they were hopeful about the future.

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Owner, Dwayne Boudreaux is helping other New Orleans local entrepreneurs by allowing them to rent out space in the building giving their business a storefront with little overhead. Small businesses are coming together, sends a powerful message to the world. Something one has to admire! The building is a vessel for new entrepreneurs to get their products seen as well as assisting with the cycling of dollars. It sounds like a great partnering, coming together for the greater good of all. There are even Pop Up Events that are hosted there as well. Vendors of all sorts set up in the mezzanine to sell their homemade products. If the store closed, it would affect them as well… This is what our ancestors taught us, to lift each other once we have reached a level of success. That “It takes a village” mentality/concept can be seen within the building, and these businesses within Circle Food Store made for a one-stop shop for the Treme community.

And now a year later this historical black-owned grocery store and hub for small business is in jeopardy for closure?? I do not get this at all, or maybe I do…

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The owner, Dwayne Boudreaux to the New Orleans Advocate “We’re still here, but we’re in bad shape,” said Dwayne Boudreaux, proprietor of Circle Food Store. “I’ve been trying my best to keep it open, but it looks like that might be impossible. We are just looking at it day to day at this point.”

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Over the years several Circle has been home to other small businesses as I mentioned. Businesses such as a pharmacy, a doctor, a chiropractor, check cashing and banking, and a place to buy school uniforms. Circle sells cigarettes and alcohol as well. In addition to providing what one can expect at any typical grocery store, Circle has a restaurant which is known for the “Hot Plates.” You now hot food, hot meals, such as a NOLA breakfast of thick, creamy, buttery grits, eggs and meat of your choice, as Y’all know I always pick New Orleans AP Patton hot sausage, but there’s also a wide selection of offerings for lunch and dinner as well. There’s also a donut shop, well it sells more than donuts, but Dough to Dough offers coffee, donuts, and pizza. They are known for their tasty vegan donuts, so much, so people have a hard time believing that they are vegan. I know I did lol.

I know this may sound like I’m advertising and advocating for Circle, but that’s not the case. I know all too well the feeling of closing the doors to a family business. Right at this moment my first business mentor, the woman who gave me a chance to feel like Princess Tiana by renting me the restaurant in her building passed away this year after a long battle with cancer. The building, Arnellia’s went on the market not even a week ago, because the city would not give her son’s a liquor license as well as some personal family issues. Over the years we had our dealings with our community, that is the lack of support aka patronage, as well as employee theft, plumbing issues. Basically, we had to deal with it all. I know it takes more than to keep the customers coming to keep a business successful.

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Also, I must confess that I feel I may be a part of the problem as well, not just with Circle either. I am guilty of being one of many African Americans who doesn’t patronize black-owned businesses enough. Most times, I moved by the reminders to #ShopBlack #EatNoir and so on. Yes, I shop at Circle, but as far as making groceries, my $400+ grocery allotment goes to Rouses on Franklin Ave. I drive or take an Uber miles towards the Lakefront to make groceries. I shop at Circle when I know there’s something the store has that I can’t get elsewhere or if there’s a good sale. When the need calls for me to make my Famous stuffed bell peppers I go to Circle because they are known for the large bell peppers that are always 4 for a $1. If you cook with bell peppers, you know one will cost almost a $1 given the season. This year alone I have shopped at Circle four times. One visit, in particular, was for the Shop Black HBCU event and that was one of those guilt trips. Knowing that if I didn’t go, it would make for some nice gossip. I heard it ringing in my ears, heard it playing out in my head “Yall heard Nola Chic on the radio and social media telling us to go spend at Circle today in support of HBCU and Black Business. You know she didn’t go, she’s a hypocrite.” I was so worried about not getting a picture with the owner after he declined due to his hair not being cut and he was tired. I was so concerned with the need to give prove I was there I decided to go Live briefly, without showing my face or his, because I was tired as well and looked a hot mess. I rolled out of bed with the coupon to save $10 off $50 and spent no more than that, snapped a few pictures and went home. Yes, I’m human, and months ago I was so stressed about what people had to say about my brand and me personally. I let that thinking control me until recently. Anyway, my others shopping trips were for the donuts for my vegan eating friends, pickle meat and I would make an effort to go in whenever there was an event under the bridge, but never spending over $50 each time…

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In wrecking my brain after feeling guilty for not doing spending with black business as much as I should, I did some Googling and found some interesting facts.

Research shows A dollar spends 28 days circulating in the Asian community; 19 days in the Jewish community; 17 days in predominately WASP communities; and seven days in Hispanic communities. A dollar flows for only 6 hours in the black community. When a Black person earns a dollar, it is typically not spent with a Black-owned business. 99% of our 1.3 Trillion dollar buying power is spent outside of our community. Blacksdevote less money to black-owned companies than other racial and ethnic groups spend in businesses owned by members of their groups.
Why?

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This reminds me of a visit to the bank recently, I needed to speak to a banker and was told to take a seat. As I was waiting, I noticed a Hmong family and overheard the talk of opening a family business. One voice, a translator, lead the conversation more than the others because she was translating for the elders to ensure that all were in total agreement about the business loan they were set to sign off on. As made my way out I had to be nosey and observed a family 6 Hmongs, made up of 3 generation coming together as a whole to create a great family legacy. I walked out the bank happy for them, the experience reminded me of my grandmother and her attempt to get the houses paid off, so we all would have a home to live in just in case of life brought one of us at rock bottom.

My emotions changed, still happy for the family, but I realized it would be the like pulling teeth to get my people to come together as they did. My immediate family, from my Mama’s womb, we just talked about investing as a family, but beyond them, I do not think it will go well. There’s only a select few that are have the same heart for continuing our family legacy and coming together for the good of us all. It brought me down after thinking of my extended family and my community who seem always to have issues when coming together for minor things especially anything involving money.

Then there’s the death of a loved one especially the family matriarch and the years of knowing they paid life insurance and had a will, the boxing gloves are brought out then… We can be so mean to each other over mediocre monetary exchanges.

We wonder why black businesses have a hard time keeping their doors open and why it was so easy for our great-grandparents homes to slip through our fingertips, only to be turned into Airbnb’s. We see the end of what was once black communities that no one ever worried with until Katrina. These areas were turned into a luxury living for the New New Orleans residents, the evidence of gentrification is all around us. And yet we look to blame every other race, the government and the list go on for what has happened to our communities, our lives. But we do not realize there is a separation occurring amongst us, and if we do not come together, it will only get worse. The total gentrification or shall I say genocide of the black community, our contribution to New Orleans culture will be wiped away if we do not see our lack of advocacy for ourselves and the community.

As I mentioned the Black Community is the major spending contributor, our dollars are counted on to keep the wealthy businessmen wealthier. If were to commit to supporting one another then maybe we can have those trillions of dollars cycling within our families and communities. But that would mean we would have to stop viewing each other as competition and rid ourselves of jealousy. “Our jealousies, competitiveness, unwillingness to support one another and pettiness with other black people is what’s keeping us from moving forward.” https://diaryofanegress.com/

I have spoken out about “There’s room for us all” after experiencing lack of support, informed of being looked at as competition and hearing gossip. It was recently proven once again that there’s enough money to go around in New Orleans. According to a story on the Essence magazine website, Essence Festival added $280 million to the New Orleans and Louisiana economy in 2018. If we realize we all can have a piece of the pie then maybe we will stop the haterism and do business with each other. Without the help of the black community, our family, our people we will continue to see this trend.

It begins with us first. There’s no need to worry about if you put someone “on” as they say that you will lose out for assisting someone climbs the ladder. That might be your blessing, your double fold, your seed that will reap the bounty. There’s room for all of us. We all bring different talent and skills to the table, collaborating may be the key as well.

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My mentor & co-host Gumbo with E.D.E.N

As a black entrepreneur who once owned a restaurant, I’m disappointed in myself for my lack of support not only to Circle but other entrepreneurs as well.

I will attest to the fact that I have witnessed how we treat our Sistas and Brothers who have small businesses. We come with a boot in our mouth, demanding a deal, discount and if we’re blood family, we damn near want it for free. We can’t do that at the department stores or restaurants.

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We complain about the prices of the Black Owned Business and will tell you that you are “Yall ripping People Off,” to your face and in front of other customers. But we will spend big money at a business with the look of expensive name brand labels, leaving you without a personal experience with the brand. For example, the entrepreneur with a small storefront or home business will be able to create a customed made one of a kind product for us and give us a personal experience. The owner has to consider the time it takes to make the product, the manufacturing is done in-house and not in a factory, therefore, making the product unique, and you have to pay for creativity, quality and the list goes on. But typically we refuse or ignore small businesses because they aren’t a major brand, because of that need to keep up with “The Jone’s.” We’re happy and broke in our expensive designer couture and shoes, eating at 4+star restaurants with no care of how much our meal will cost. The thought to ask for a deal does not enter our minds, but we get angry when the cake lady can’t make us a $200 cake for $40…

As a shopper of Circle Food Store I noticed the prices of certain products, let’s say deodorant because I had to buy some when we were at an event under the bridge for my musty little niece. But a small size of off-brand deodorant was $4, at the chain store it’s no more than $2 if that. I brought the deodorant without the need to ask the manager why it was priced so high or complain. I had a package of baby wipes in my purse, I was shown the clean restrooms, and I de-musty-field (made up word lol) my niece and went on our way.

Several other products are priced higher at Circle that I can state but is it Circle’s fault for this pricing?? It’s how the government, well the business has pricing set up in the inner city across the nation. Have you ever notice that gas is higher in the urban community? It’s politics, and we have to fight the government, not the small business.

I read several comments about the barren shelves and the lack of everyday products; I saw it for myself too. I’m not entirely sure why the shelves are empty or the lack of products as far as Circle is a concern. I recall times it didn’t make sense for us to continue to buy certain items in bulk or even at all if the numbers shown our customers weren’t eating a certain. I couldn’t imagine the pain of staring at barren shelves, the utilities are running, an employee is on the clock and by closing you have no need to count thr register because no one patronized your business that day.

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Actually up until last year Circle has been the only grocery store within the 7th and 8th Ward, except for Savers which I can not stand, but last year Robert’s which in the Marigny area has a small Whole Food’s feel and is severely overpriced. Robert’s prices are higher than Circle’s, but hey we paying for designer food lol. I was informed it was designed and stocked for the “tourist,” and I believe that. There were no pickled pigtails or smoked turkey necks sold there lol. The small check out lanes and small shopping carts aren’t for the native New Orleanian who goes in to make groceries. I told myself I would never return after I was given this information from management. I would go to Circle which is just about equal distance, but I continued to shop there because of the lack of items at Circle and not the pricing. I didn’t view not buying there like me not supporting a Black Business, I needed what I needed, but I still felt some guilt.

It’s possible I feel like this because I know the need for customers even now. I found that even as a blogger, media personality and influencer the need for customers still exists. It took for me to get training and acquire sponsors to understand that I still need people to patronize me, but instead of selling my delicious food I am selling ME, Dee, NOLA Chic. I have to admit having a restaurant was far easier than trying to gain followers and keep people engaged. There was the issue of family support when I had the restaurant that seemed to get worse with my social media life. There are very few family members who support me, some have been downright mean and have told me to my face they wish I fail. I would learn that people, in general, think this pays and being in the spotlight is what added to the increasing hatred within my circle. It hurt and caused me some depression, but I’m getting better with accepting I do not have their good wishes.

Knowing this now I wasn’t surprised when I read and heard from a family member of Circle that significant issues are going on within the Circle Food Store Empire which have nothing to do with patronage. It’s sad when money tears apart a family’s legacy.

“Now, just four years after the grocery store and neighborhood landmark reopened for business, its owners are on the brink of shutting it down, mired in debt and fighting their own family in court over money they claim was embezzled from the business.” Source: https://www.theadvocate.com/new_orleans/entertainment_life/food_restaurants/article_4ccc95b2-d232-11e8-aeb8-e35b0b58bfdf.html

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Out of all the other races we behave as if we are the delicious blue crabs we devour in New Orleans. We are all fighting to escape the hot boiling water, and if by chance we get to the rim of the pot, there are the claws of the others crabs clamp onto us pulling us back the pot. A part of me wants to think this quote; depiction is the one crab that has reached the top was holding on to the crab trying to help the other to the top along with it…

We claim sister and brotherhood and scream at the white man for holding us down, but if this crab thing is right… If we were to really look in the mirror of our actions and honestly accept our reflection, we would see that we are not 100% vested in our people or even ourselves at times. The only thought we see is our; we are so vain that we won’t stand in the mirror long enough to see the reflection of our heart and soul. And even if we all we see is ourselves then at least we have the choice, to be honest with ourselves, and by being so, we can invoke change from within.

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Going back to why I feel the black community may carry some of the burdens for the possible closure of the Circle Foods may be true, just as well as with other black-owned businesses that are struggling to survive… I believe we should shop black more and if we can’t afford to buy may a show of support may help a small business owner more than buying. We had this guy with down syndrome who came in the restaurant a couple of times a week with no money at all, but he would offer to clean up, take out the trash and would only accept a three piece wing dinner. There were days and nights where it was nice to have him around especially when I was alone. I really appreciate him and valued him as a barter partner. To think about it our relationship was a form of collaboration and friendship. It doesn’t take much to support someone.

Why is there lack of support for black businesses by the black community? Why do we spend with these major brands and designers whose products are not made in American and it’s not like we are ordering from the Motherland, Africa? Why do we blame the “Man” for holding us down, when we are pulling each other down like crabs in a bucket? Are we as a community partly responsible for the lack of patronage to Circle? And as with the family of Circle Food Store, why do we dig down deep to our roots, destroying our family tree.

We are put in the position to carry on our family legacy, and we lose it after all that hard work. I envision a seed being planted long ago, the one who planted it cared for it by feeding and watering it. That person watched it grow, the tree would bear fruit and sometimes not, but that person kept tending to it until their death leaving it to us, trusting we would continue to on as they did, but we dig it up from the roots. Basically killing the family legacy. There will be nothing to be passed on to the next generation well their story because the money from that seed down long ago will be gone in an instant? I think of our ancestors, how they worked together, endured together and held it together for us.

I do not understand why we can’t keep that going at least in honor of them?

If we are going to talk about the need for more Black Businesses, the need for more support for Black Businesses and why Black Businesses fail, we have to address our role as a Black Family, Black Community, Black Buyers, as well as Black Business Owners. I’m quite sure if we are part of the problem, we would be willing to fix it. My heart is telling me that all it will take is for us to Shop Black more often.

I have to admit a part of me believes this is just the ploy of the gentrifiers, the big time developers, flashing big bucks in the family’s face with the promise of ridding them of all the loans and a nice profit would be left afterward ensuring a comfy life. Circle Food Store is sitting in New Orleans hottest real estate market and as you can see the effects of gentrification throughout Treme stretching to the Lower 9th Ward. I think the owners will get seduced into selling. Not sure when it will be, but hey as I stated “Who is to blame or should the community be upset or even involved if they let “their family” business go?”

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Before I go, let me correct my statement of “Family and Friend Support” because I have the support I NEED from the family and close friends who truly love me. I am overwhelmed by the love and encouragement from people who do not know me in the physical, but we have bonded through my blogging and social media. It is highly suggested to engage with your followers, respond to their comments, but for me following that advice work greater than intended, you know get return readers followers is one thing, but I have solid positive relationships with people whom I would never have met in my everyday life had I not stepped out on faith. I have been attacked and told “I wish you fail, You’re no NOLA Chic, You’re not a writer, You’re just showing off,” and the list goes on. Their lack of support and nasty words roll off me now, because of my loyal supporters… It’s been quite a beautiful experience, and I’m grateful to all of you.

Research sources and quotes: Circle Food Store website & Facebook page, The Advocate New Orleans, Tulane University “Saving Circle Food.”

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