There used to be more options. In the past decade, three local bodegas, at least, have closed in the Whittier neighborhood, and a larger grocer called Downing Super recently shuttered. There is one small market left, Gem Food Mart, at the edge of the neighborhood at East 30th Avenue and Downing Street.
The old Scott’s Market at East 31st Avenue and Williams Street was open in the ’90s and 2010s; the boarded-up building still has its sign up, though it's half missing. Both Ben’s Super Market at East 28th Avenue and York Street and Lincoln Market at East 25th Avenue and Gilpin Street closed more recently. The former Ben’s is likely to become a local bar; a business called Ephemeral Rotating Tap applied for a permit for the space, which has been under renovation. The former Lincoln Market location is still available for rent, says John Livaditis, president of AXIO Commercial Real Estate, which owns the building.
While he'd like to see another market open at the address, he says its been difficult to find interested parties despite having spoken to Choice Market, Marczyk Fine Foods and Spinelli's Market , the latter two of which have operated specialized markets in Denver neighborhoods since the ’90s.
One of Spinelli's current co-owners, John Moutzouris, told Livaditis that it's likely markets are not interested in the space because that type of business comes with many hurdles. “It’s a challenge of scale,” Livaditis says, noting that it's hard to make enough money to compete with grocery stores, even if there are none in the immediate area. “I would love to get a market in there of any shape or form,” he says, but the space is more likely to become a restaurant.
Leo got similar advice from Spinelli's other co-owner, Pete Moutzouris, as well as its original founder, Jerry Spinelli, who owned the market with his wife, Mary Ellen, for two decades. But despite the warning, Leo persisted, and in July quietly opened Sun Market, named for the amount of sun the south-facing storefront receives. "I wasn't thinking about profit margin," Leo says. "It just felt right. I still believe it'll work out."
Brown bread in a can sits on the shelf because she was curious to try it (she says it’s good grilled with butter). There's gluten-free organic edamame pasta on the same shelf as 99-cent bags of traditional dry pasta. An entire shelf of Asian sauces and spices, along with specialties like jackfruit in brine, are inspired by Leo's love of cooking. There are fridges with cold dairy products, meats and a selection of produce. So far, produce has been the trickiest items to carry, Leo says.
The shelves appear a bit sparse, but that’s also intentional. As she meets and speaks with neighbors, she orders items they are specifically looking for. She plans to continue filling the shelves and has room to expand. Leo recently added a freezer and is getting fresh bread every Friday. “This store will fill up,” she explains. “If a neighbor asks, I want to say, 'Yes, I have it.'”
There is also a section with locally made gifts, some children’s toys and books, wrapping paper, inexpensive greeting cards and kitchen supplies.
A few weeks after opening, Leo added an outdoor table and chairs to the patio, which she hopes to utilize for small community gatherings like pop-up markets or an occasional food truck. She also hopes to turn the back room, which is currently used as an office and space for her children to play, into a deli.
Although the market business can be tough, Leo, with her bright smile and sunny yellow apron, is looking on the sunnier side of the street.