New Ralph and Jerry’s a local landmark

by Jessica Steeno

A local landmark and corner grocery store has returned to local ownership after three years as a Food-N-Fuel chain store.
From 1958 until 1993, Ralph and Jerry’s — the corner store at 4th Street and 8th Avenue Southeast — was a campus tradition. Almost every University student had been to the store at some point, and when Ralph and Jerry’s closed its doors in 1993 local residents protested, boycotting the new ownership and its proposed remodeling of the hand-made, cluttered interior of the former Ralph and Jerry’s.
But since September 1, when former manager Rich Henning leased the store and renamed it Ralph and Jerry’s, patrons of the old store have come flooding back to support Henning in his investment.
Henning said a woman came to Ralph and Jerry’s in early September who had boycotted the store for the three years it was a Food-N-Fuel. “She said that even if she needed just a bag of sugar she’d walk all the way to House of Hanson although she lives across the street,” Henning said.
The response to the chain moving out and the old namesake moving in has been very positive, according to Henning.
“People were faithful to this place,” he said.
Part of the Ralph and Jerry’s legacy were the hand-made signs around the store and graffiti on the basement walls.
Much of the old memorabilia was lost when the store converted to Food-N-Fuel, but a few signs remained, and Henning has posted them. There’s a sign above the snack cakes with a picture of male supermodel Fabio with a caption that reads, “I owe this body to Little Debbie.”
Much of the graffiti in the basement was covered with sheet rock during the 1993 remodeling, but one room with painted walls remains. On the ceiling of that room someone wrote, “What are you looking up here for, you lazy beatnik? Get back to work!”
There is also a recent caricature of former Grateful Dead singer/guitarist Jerry Garcia on one of the walls. In the picture his artist-imposed wings are taking him to heaven.
The molding around the doorway to the bathroom says in red letters, “Poop City.”
Henning said the walls of the basement were covered entirely with graffiti before Food-N-Fuel moved in.
Food-N-Fuel did not want to renew their lease, and that’s when Henning stepped in and signed. “They wanted out,” he said. “I’m sure it had something to do with the boycotts.”
“I would rule that out pretty fast,” said Ed Bird, Executive Vice president and General Manager of the Food-N-Fuel chain. “We just didn’t want to get into a long-term lease at that location.”
Henning runs several other convenience stores in the Twin Cities, but Ralph and Jerry’s was not just another business venture for him. He was concerned that Food-N-Fuel did not keep the spirit of Ralph and Jerry’s alive, he said.
“Their philosophy is a location is a location, and that’s what they don’t understand,” he said. “This place is special.”
Henning hopes Ralph and Jerry’s can return to the way it used to be. “I always liked this store,” he said. “Anyone can be anybody here, and that’s what I like.”
The new store must also overcome financial hurdles. “I’m going to do the best I can,” he said. “My feeling is that it’s going to be a hard start financially, but I think it’s going to come back.”
One change Henning has already made is to lower the prices.
“They were hosing people,” Henning said of Food-N-Fuel as he displayed a can of creamed corn price marked by the chain. The price said $1.89.
“I charge $.89,” he said.
In the near future, he said, Ralph and Jerry’s will offer a wider selection of goods.
Henning also hopes to keep the store open 24 hours again. He has to get approval from the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association first, but he is confident that they will approve it.
The new hours would start sometime in October. Henning said convenience for his customers is not the only reason he wants approval for the new hours.
“There never used to be graffiti on the outside walls because it was open 24 hours and the lights were always on and people were there all the time,” he said.
Employees of Food-N-Fuel will have the chance to stay under the new management.