Sam's Mart convenience shopping thrives in struggling Oakland Mills

Residents find it fills void left by empty stores

Small business

Howard Business

February 11, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Columbia's Oakland Mills village has lost an Exxon gas station, a Royal Farms convenience store and a Metro Food Market grocery store - virtually killing its village center.

But in an area in which commerce is nearly dead, Sam's Mart is open, and finding a way to expand.

The independent convenience store at the entrance to Oakland Mills Village Center is not just a place to stop for soda and candy. Many residents are finding it a useful place to buy groceries.

"The community is delighted to have the convenience store there," said Barbara Russell, Columbia councilwoman representing Oakland Mills. "Because the Metro market closed, there are a number of people who live in the immediate walking area that have found it a great place to get staples."

Sam's Mart, owned by Zaf Ali and his cousin, Majjed Hussan, opened in the vacant strip along Stevens Forest Road last summer. The hybrid convenience store - part grocery, part fast food and part ethnic foods store - is making its mark by catering to the area's large Hispanic population, nearby residents with inadequate transportation to the grocery store in the next village and others in the community who had been aching for convenient shopping.

In the six months since the store opened, business has been good, according to manager Sohail Ahsan, Ali's nephew. Month-over-month sales are growing between 5 percent and 8 percent, he estimated, and sales have come as much from perishable grocery items as long-distance calling cards and chips and soda. Next month, the shop, which serves fried chicken, is adding a deli.

Grocery store needed

"We're trying to make it as a grocery store," Ahsan said. "People around here need a grocery store where they can get their daily items. There was not a grocery store around here in six or seven miles."

In the past few years, Oakland Mills Village Center has struggled. Despite a $4 million renovation in 1998 by the Rouse Co., the main stores in the shopping center and at its entrance have suffered and closed.

A year after the renovation, a string of robberies and low sales forced Royal Farms, the area's convenience store along the entrance, to close. The Exxon gas station next door followed suit, leaving its property boarded up until it was demolished and the underground gas tanks removed early last year.

Metro Food Market, the second grocery store to have come into the village center and part of Rouse's multimillion-dollar renovation, closed in April, after three years at the location. Several shops remain in the center, but most are not visible from the street.

Replaced Royal Farms

It was into this dreary scene that owners Ali and Hussan opened Sam's Mart last summer in the building Royal Farms had vacated two years earlier.

Hussan, who owns a string of gas stations with convenience stores in the Baltimore area, picked the location because everything else was closed, Ahsan said. It is the first one in the family not connected to a gas station.

In the store, shoppers find the typical fare of soda, potato chips and candy bars, but there is also a corner with fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh loofah sponges and huge aloe leaves. The shop caters to a Hispanic population - roughly 60 percent of the customer base - with aisles of Goya canned goods and Latin American-brand cheeses in the refrigerated cases.

Stouffers frozen dinners share space with butter, eggs, whipped cream and sour cream. And instant pasta dishes line the shelves, along with bread, coffee, toothpaste and disposable razors.

Grocery items account for about a third of the store's sales, Ahsan said, as do sales of long-distance calling cards and typical convenience store fare of snacks and drinks.

Residents hope that another full-size grocery store will return to the community, but in the meantime, Sam's Mart is the next best thing, especially for those with little or no transportation.

"If you don't [have a car] and you have to take the bus [to the grocery store], it's a tough haul," said David Hatch, chairman of the Oakland Mills Village Center board.

"Sam's has stepped in very nicely to fill in the gap," he said. "People talk about going there to get a lot of what they need - not everything, but a lot."

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