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Indie Closeup: Grab-and-Go Gastronomy

Norfolk, Va., couple integrates hard-to-find foods and beverages into c-store offering, and the strategy is paying dividends
ghent grab & go caprese sandwich
Photograph courtesy of Ghent Grab & Go, facebook.com/ghentgrabngo

NORFOLK, Va. — Formerly an art gallery, Ghent Grab & Go is curating new types of masterpieces since the convenience store debuted in late 2021.

Owners Dilanka “Dee” Perera and her husband Sean Vantwest converted the former gallery into what’s now a thriving 2,800-square-foot c-store in Norfolk, Va., making a difference in the local market by placing an accent on international-style goods that are hard to locate in the area. They’re getting an assist in running the store from their two employees, including son Kenul, who’s 15-year-old.

A graduate of Old Dominion University with a degree in accounting, Perera had worked for a local firm until immersing herself in retail. Vantwest worked full-time at their previous retail venture, Creek Food Mart, an international grocery and convenience store in Norfolk.

Vantwest continues to log 80 hours a week at Ghent Grab & Go, with Perera assuming a part-time role as she cares for their infant daughter.

“We both came from families with business backgrounds and had a passion to start something like this on our own,” said Perera, a native of Sri Lanka. “Over the years, we watched and learned what people were looking for in other retail settings—mainly studying tendencies. We determined we’d concentrate on international products because this community is so diverse, with people from all around the world.”

Perera and Vantwest recognized an opportunity with Ghent Grab & Go since there were few, if any, viable convenience retailers in proximity to their unit except for a 7-Eleven. Food choices include fresh salads and wraps, foot-long hotdogs with chili and cheese, bagels and cream cheese and pastries and desserts. Some exotic offerings include chutney, beef curry paste and spices from the Caribbean and Sri Lanka.

“We were eager to blend the two [models of convenience and grocery], and place an emphasis on quick grab-and-go items with an international flair—Italian, Indian, Latin and more. We offer groceries from around the world. In fact, a local magazine [Veer] wrote a story about us with the headline ‘Around the World in 80 Seconds’ [a nod to the way c-stores provide quick, efficient service].”

Read ahead for a conversation with Perera about what she and Vantwest hope to achieve in 2022 and beyond.

Q: Among other things, you opted to place an emphasis on merchandising both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks—can you elaborate?

A: We offer a piña colada mocktail and four different kinds of smoothies made to order, plus several types of tea and beverages from our coffee bar, including cappuccino, café mocha and white chocolate mocha. We have dairy-free pineapple soft-serve treats and Italian and French wines [ranging from $7 to $75 per bottle]. The non-alcoholic spirits idea was actually a hunch we had, and the response from the community has been amazing.

Q: Describe what you went through prior to opening in late December 2021?

A: We first thought that the post-pandemic period would be a perfect time to get everything ready, but instead found that we were unable to acquire the supplies and equipment we needed, such as digital menu boards, blenders—it was a three-month wait as everything was delayed. Even obtaining city permits was problematic. We were pressed for time, money and frustration built. Thankfully, we hit the six-month mark [in June] and have two reliable employees. We’ve come a long way, and have much more to accomplish.

Q: How would you describe the clientele at the store—from locals to vacationers to other types of folks passing through the region?

A: The No.1 clientele we aim to serve are locals. We received huge support from the local community, which is determined to see small business succeed. The NEON District [New Energy of Norfolk, an official arts district, advocates for local business and supports culture and the arts]. In addition, there are office complexes that help us not only as being regular customers but they tag us on Facebook. There are hotels in the area and a hospital with a medical school nearby too.

Q: What other food and beverage categories are/have been flourishing, and was their success due to any kind of significant price/promotion/display initiatives?

A: We serve curry and rice, sandwiches such as Caprese, Santa Fe turkey and roasted veggie. We make sandwiches to-order and use a commercial kitchen off-site where curry must be produced. We also sell fresh produce, which is critical since there are very few fresh produce outlets nearby: we work through local farmers to procure it. June is big for strawberries, and then we move to squash, zucchini, blueberries, local mushrooms and more.

Q: Describe the breadth and depth of your supplier network?

A: We have several suppliers. Sean and I are originally from Sri Lanka and have wholesalers that supply us with all types of ethnic spices and ingredients. At the beginning, we had to drive to New York to procure some items, but thankfully we’ve found the items closer to home.

Q: What are some of your goals for the rest of 2022 and into 2023?

A: For the next six months, we’re very eager to expand the menu as we’re only serving a portion of what we’d imagine [offering]. We’ve been having trouble procuring several types of foods, including chicken and even espresso. There’s a vacant store next to us and we’d love to expand into that space to expand our grab-and-go advantage. We want to become a destination stop where people know to come to us for food and drink.

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