It didn’t take long for Kevin Aldwaik to realize that the corporate life wasn’t for him. After landing a job as “a tire exchange guy” at the now defunct Sears Auto Center in St. Paul as a 21-year-old, Aldwaik quickly climbed the company ladder. By the next year, he was a manager at the company’s Burnsville location.
Then the trouble started. At the time, Sears had come under new ownership and, with that, came an unwelcome cost-cutting edict: managers, Aldwaik said, were instructed to find reasons to fire older, more expensive employees. Some were on the cusp of retirement.
Aldwaik refused to go along and so, he said, he was sacked. He moved on to a job at a tire dealership. “But after a couple of years, I thought, I don’t want to be a corporate number. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Aldwaik, who grew up in East Jerusalem and came to the U.S. as a teenage refugee in 1996, had friends and relatives in the Twin Cities who operated convenience stores. “That is how I got sucked into this,” he wise-cracked, speaking from behind the counter of Webber Mart, a modest but conspicuously tidy corner store at the intersection of 44th Avenue North and James Avenue in North Minneapolis.
Many of his customers come from Patrick Henry High School, which is located a few blocks away. Residents of Hamilton Manner, a nearby senior citizens apartment complex, rely on Webber Mart for grocery staples and sundries. All told, Aldwaik estimates that 95 percent of his customers are from Webber-Camden, a racially diverse, working-class neighborhood. Most arrive by foot.
The area has long been underserved by retailers, but there have been recent signs of improvement. North Market, a non-profit full-service grocery and wellness center located down the street, opened in late 2017. More recently, an independent coffee shop moved into the neighborhood. The new Webber Park Library is nearby.
Aldwaik said he welcomes the new ventures, none of which he regards as competitors. “There is a need in our community for five more of my stores. We lack commercial infrastructure,” he said.
On the subject of tobacco sales, Aldwaik is conflicted. Although he is a cigarette smoker, he recognizes 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 regards the Minneapolis City Council’s increased restrictions on the sale of menthol cigarettes as misguided – and punishing for 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 the north side faces, but he is a booster at heart. For 15 years, he served on the board of the Camden-Webber Neighborhood Organization. Currently, he is the vice-president of the Camden Lions Club and a director of the Camden Collective, a neighborhood tutoring program that was launched in 2020 to help students make up for losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. When the Minneapolis public school teachers went on strike, Aldwaik was quick to offer up hot food and snacks – as well as vociferous 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 the offerings were sparse. Nonetheless, the business thrived during the five years Aldwaik operated. The low point: a robbery gone wrong in which two of his employees were shot, one fatally.
“That devastated me emotionally,” he said. ” I shut down for a week. Then the community got a hold of me. They said since you’ve been here, you’ve been outstanding. We’ve got your back.”
Aldwaik re-opened but began to hunt around 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.
Still, Aldwaik yearned to own a property, not just a business. Eventually, he purchased an old plumbing supply store on 44th Avenue North. After fits and starts, including a long slog with city regulators over tobacco sales and a bankruptcy, Aldwaik launched the current iteration of Webber Mart in early 2016. He currently has five part-time employees.
After the riots and protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Aldwaik renovated the store basement into an apartment and moved in. “I got tired of worrying about the place, or the alarm going off,” he said. He lives with two store cats that he dotes on.
In an interview with Sahan Journal, Aldwaik spoke about his life as a corner store owner.
The key to repeat business: Keep your store tidy and clean. “I always try to give the best to the community. We renovated Camden Mart from the ground up and I wanted to do the same here. People look down at North Minneapolis. The expectations are low. Why should it be low? Why can’t we do more? When I restarted Webber Mart, I wanted new coolers, new floor, 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 looking good because it is my pride and joy.”
To win, over the community, plow the damn sidewalks. “I have a bobcat in back of the store. It’s small. It clears a path about three feet wide. I take care of 44th 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 about it. But I do it as a community service.”
North Minneapolis has an undeserved reputation: “I don’t consider the area to be as hazardous as people make it sound. This is my experience. I get to know the people who shop in my place. I want to have a conversation. Crime wise, that helps. I’ve never been robbed at this location. I have been shot at once. It was a kid. I think he was just trying to scare me, not hit me. That’s why I didn’t pull out my gun. The people who witnessed it were like, you should have shot him. But I don’t need to kill or hurt somebody. It was a time to take a step back and not make things worse.”
Don’t be naive about safety and crime: “From my experience, robberies happen for two reasons – it’s a crime of opportunity or it’s a personal thing. I try to do my best. Surveillance-wise, my store is on lock down. The city requires one camera. I have 16. I used to operate from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. I decided to reduce the hours to 8 to 8 on weekdays, 9 to 8 on Saturday, and 9 to 7 on Sundays. Right now, Minneapolis police are understaffed. I don’t want my employees to be scared.”
If your customers are locals, your employees should be too: “All my guys are local. I never look for people from outside the neighborhood. Three of my employees were Patrick Henry students.”Listen to your customers: “I learned this business through trial and error. The community teaches you what you need to do. Your customers tell you what they want.”