The old Neumann’s Food Store and Meat Market brought fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh and smoked meat to Victoria’s south side.

For decades, Neumann’s and other neighborhood grocery stores were busy as residents frequented them for their weekly groceries and fresh meat.

But over the years, the owners of the mom and pop stores retired or sold their businesses. New stores did not replace them.

The neighborhood became a food desert, meaning most of the neighborhood’s households comprise low-income residents and the closest grocery store is more than a mile away, according to a 2017 analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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Developers are working to help the southside neighborhood by restoring the former Neumann’s Food Store and Meat Market. They have fully restored the building’s interior and already leased two of their vacant storefronts with tenants, but with their third occupancy, they say they’re determined to return a grocery store to the building where a functional smoker still smells like fresh meat.

“We’re dealing with a building that’s got great bones,” said Mike Herbold, who is restoring the building with Dennis Caka, of DC Realty. “It’s been there since the ’40s.”

The pair has reached out to more than 20 grocers.

“That would be a preferred user in there,” Herbold said.

The problem is no one’s biting on the offer.

The developers bought the building in early 2019 and turned the 12,000-square-foot space into two 3,500-square-foot units, occupied by a game room, U Win, and a pickup restaurant, Mabel’s Table.

A third, 6,000-square-foot unit to be completed before the end of the year has yet to be filled.

Bethany Castro, executive director of Perpetual Help Home, is encouraging the developers to bring a grocery store back to an area where access to food is difficult, in part because at least 20% of the households don’t have a car, according to Census data.

The Be Well Victoria mental health coalition is also pushing for a grocery store. Food insecurity is among the primary challenges the group is confronting.

While her eatery won’t fill the need of a grocery store, Mellisa Buentello said Mabel’s Table would also profit from the foot traffic brought in by a grocery store.

She plans to sell prepared foods, including tamales, meatloaf and carne guisada – recipes her mom, Amelia Martinez, used when she owned Martinez Cafe.

Eventually, Buentello hopes to expand the business she owns with her husband, Roger Buentello, into a sit-down restaurant.

“I think I’m just glad to see investment in the south side, whatever the purpose might be for,” Castro said of the filled store vacancies.

Although she’s anxious for a grocery store to come in, Castro said she doesn’t expect one to arrive overnight.

“It is risky and scary for a business,” Castro said. “They do all kinds of market research, and if it’s not going to be profitable, they’re not going to do it.”

Morgan O'Hanlon is the business and agriculture reporter for the Victoria Advocate. She can be reached at 361-580-6328, or on Twitter @mcohanlon.

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