WEST PEORIA — That Haddad's West Peoria Market is celebrating 100 years in business is an accomplishment in itself, but Jimmy Dillon believes there's more to the story.
"It's the backbone of the West Peoria community," said the Peoria County Board member, who worked at the market as a high schooler.
"It's where you see your neighbors. I can't picture West Peoria without it," said Dillon of the supermarket at 2407 W Rohmann Ave.
Haddad's is celebrating reaching the centennial mark with a modest sale and sampling session from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, said owner Mark Wrhel, who took over the store from the Haddad family in 1994.
The original Haddad's opened Downtown in 1919 at First and Shipman, where the Caterpillar Development Center is located today, Wrhel said.
Joseph Haddad was one of the many Lebanese who opened grocery stores in Peoria. “In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, there were no fewer than 14 Lebanese-owned grocery stores in Peoria and East Peoria,” said Randy Couri, editor of “The Story of Us,” a history of Peoria's Itoo Society.
The grocery business remained important to the Haddad family. Joseph's son and daughter, Fred and Frieda, both continued the family tradition, establishing markets in both the East Bluff as well as opening a store in West Peoria in 1964.
A fire in 1977 closed the East Bluff store for good while Haddad’s opened its doors at its present location on Rohmann Avenue in West Peoria in 1981. After a fire destroyed the store on New Year’s Eve in 2010, Wrhel rebuilt the market, reopening in November 2011.
"We added 5,000 square feet in the process," said Wrhel of the rebuild. But Haddad's is still considered small in a grocery world dominated by big box stores and warehouse facilities.
"The problem for a single mom-and-pop grocery is that you're a single store competing against national chains with the advantage of group pricing," he said.
With the closing of two Kroger supermarkets in the area and the relocation of an Aldi store once located nearby, Haddad's has taken action. "That opened up opportunities for me. I was able to go to distributors and get better pricing, more competitive pricing," said Wrhel, adding that, after taking over the store, he decided on diversifying suppliers.
"We used to buy everything from Fleming but then we bought our meat from a meat operation, our produce from a place that specialized in that and decided to make everything in-house for our deli," said Wrhel.
"We had to offer something different from the box stores," he said.
The public has responded, said Wrhel. "On items that we categorize as super-perishable — bakery, deli, produce and meat — we can actually compete on price," he said.
Wrhel has found another niche for his store. "If you're a single person or a couple looking for smaller portions, you can build your dinner for a single night at our store," he said.
"My wife gets off her job at four and grabs some items for dinner. People who visit our home are shocked to find almost nothing in our refrigerator. 'But you own a grocery store,' they say. But we buy it as we go along," said Wrhel.
As for the future, Wrhel sees things may be going his way. "You're seeing smaller format stores from outlets like Walmart and Schnucks. People are so busy now. I think the future of grocery is to make it a quicker experience," he said.
West Peoria Mayor James Dillon, Jimmy's father, also recognizes the importance of the store in his community. "People here were lost after the fire. They didn't know where to go. Thankfully, Mark chose to rebuild at the same location. Now it's up to us to respect that commitment," he said.
Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource.
CORRECTION: This story contained an incorrect date for when the Wrhel family bought the store from the Haddad family. It was 1994.