Tidy corner shop has built a loyal following in North Minneapolis

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It didn’t take long for Kevin Aldwaik to realize that corporate life wasn’t for him. After landing a job as a “tire-swap mechanic” at the now-defunct Sears Auto Center in St. Paul at the age of 21, Aldwaik rose quickly through the corporate ranks. The following year, he was manager at the company’s location in Burnsville.

Then the troubles started. At the time, Sears had come under new ownership, and with that came an unwelcome cost-cutting decree: Managers, Aldwaik said, were instructed to find reasons to lay off older and older employees. Dear. Some were about to retire.

Aldwaik refused to go and so, he said, he was sacked. He moved on to a job at a tire dealership. “But after a few years, I thought I didn’t want to be a company number. I don’t want to do this anymore.

Aldwaik, who grew up in East Jerusalem and came to the United States as a teenage refugee in 1996, had friends and relatives in the Twin Cities who operated convenience stores. “That’s how I got sucked in there,” he said sagely, speaking from behind the counter at Webber Mart, a modest but tidy corner store at the intersection of 44and North Avenue and James Avenue in North Minneapolis.

Many of her customers come from Patrick Henry High School, a few blocks away. Residents of Hamilton Manner, a nearby seniors’ apartment complex, rely on Webber Mart for basic groceries and sundries. In total, Aldwaik estimates that 95% of its customers come from Webber-Camden, a working-class, multiracial neighborhood. Most arrive on foot.

Kevin Aldwaik poses with his staff inside Webber Mart, a modest but tidy convenience store in north Minneapolis. From left to right: Jai Johnson, Kevin Aldwaik, August Thomas, Edward Williamson and Tamiya Thomas. Credit: Jaida Gray Eagle | Sahan Diary

The area has long been underserved by retailers, but there have been recent signs of improvement. North Market, a nonprofit full-service grocery and wellness center down the street, opened in late 2017. More recently, an independent cafe moved into the neighborhood. The new Webber Park Library is nearby.

Aldwaik said he welcomes new companies, none of which he sees as competitors. “There is a need in our community for five more of my stores. We lack business infrastructure,” he said.

Over tobacco sales, Aldwaik is conflicted. Although he is a cigarette smoker, he admits it is a bad habit. On the other hand, experience tells him that tobacco sales are a necessary component of the convenience store business model. He views the Minneapolis City Council’s increased restrictions on the sale of menthol cigarettes as wrong — and punishing businesses like his that are close to suburban outlets that operate without such regulations.

“I would support a statewide ban,” he added.

Aldwaik is realistic about some of the challenges facing the north side, but he is a booster at heart. For 15 years he served on the board of the Camden-Webber Neighborhood Organization. He is currently vice-president of the Camden Lions Club and director of the Camden Collective, a neighborhood tutoring program which was launched in 2020 to help students offset losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. When Minneapolis Public School teachers went on strike, Aldwaik was quick to offer hot food and snacks — along with loud expressions of support on social media.

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Aldwaik began his entrepreneurial journey by leasing a vacant gas station on Lyndale Avenue in north Minneapolis. The retail space was tiny – 300 square feet – so deals were scarce. Nevertheless, the business prospered during Aldwaik’s five years of operation. The low point: a robbery that went wrong in which two of his employees were shot, one fatally.

“It devastated me emotionally,” he said. “I closed for a week. Then the community took hold of me. They said that since you’ve been here, you’ve been exceptional. We’re here for you.

Aldwaik reopened but began to look for new opportunities. He found a partner and the duo rented an empty commercial space, also on the north side, which they renovated and opened as an independent convenience store, Camden Mart.

Yet Aldwaik aspired to own property, not just a business. Eventually he bought an old plumbing supply store at 44and North Ave. After some hiccups, including a long slog with city regulators over tobacco sales and a bankruptcy, Aldwaik launched the current iteration of Webber Mart in early 2016. It currently has five part-time employees.

After the riots and protests following the murder of George Floyd, Aldwaik renovated the store’s basement into an apartment and moved into it. “I got tired of worrying about where or if the alarm went off,” he said. He lives with two shop cats which he loves.

In an interview with Sahan Journal, Aldwaik opened up about his life as a convenience store owner.

Kevin Aldwaik lives with two shop cats that he loves. Credit: Jaida Gray Eagle | Sahan Diary

The key to customer loyalty: Keep your store tidy and clean. “I always try to give the best to the community. We completely renovated Camden Mart and wanted to do the same here. People watch North Minneapolis. Expectations are low. Why should it be weak? Why can’t we do more? When I restarted Webber Mart, I wanted new coolers, new flooring, new counters, nicer shelves. I wanted clean windows. I’m one of the cleanest independent stores in the Twin Cities. I do my best to keep the place beautiful because it is my pride and my joy.

To win, on the community, to plow the cursed sidewalks. “I have a bobcat in the back of the store. It is little. It clears a path about three feet wide. i take care of 44and Avenue, from Penn to Fremont, whenever the snow is deep. It takes me two hours because you have to be delicate. I like to keep my sidewalks clean. I’m OCD on this. But I do it as a community service.

North Minneapolis has an undeserved reputation: “I don’t consider the area to be as dangerous as people make it out to be. This is my experience. I get to know the people who shop at my place. I want to have a conversation. Crime wise, it helps. I have never been robbed at this location. I was shot immediately. He was a child. I think he was just trying to scare me, not hit me. That’s why I didn’t draw my gun. People who witnessed it were like, you should have shot him. But I don’t need to kill or hurt anyone. It was time to take a step back and not make things worse.

Don’t be naive about security and crime: “In my experience, thefts happen for two reasons – it’s a crime of opportunity or it’s a personal thing. I try to do my best. Surveillance level, my store is closed. The city needs a camera. I’m 16. I operated from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. I decided to reduce the hours to 8am-8am on weekdays, 9am-8am on Saturdays and 9am-7pm on Sundays. Currently, the Minneapolis police are understaffed. I don’t want my employees to be afraid.

If your customers are local, your employees should be too: “All my guys are local. I never look for people outside the neighborhood. Three of my employees were students of Patrick Henry.Listen to your customers: “I learned this trade by trial and error. The community teaches you what to do. Your customers tell you what they want.

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