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International grocery opens on Madison’s east side

A big crowd mingles at the newly-opened Gooh Grocery on East Washington Avenue in Madison. Photo by Omar Waheed.

A vision for the former Visions Night Club, a political past and the community coming together — a new grocery store has come to Madison’s east side to help address the food desert and bring healthy, worldly options to the area.

Gooh Grocery, 3554 E. Washington Ave., officially opened its doors Friday afternoon. People from all over Wisconsin came out in support and celebration of the new grocery store opened by State Representative Samba Baldeh and Jerreh Kujabi, a network engineer for the Sun Prairie Area School District. The venture has been in the works since 2021 as Baldeh and Kujabi worked with state and local officials in hopes of providing a healthy, affordable alternative while creating a space of food from west African countries and combating food deserts in the surrounding areas.

“Many people here have been here before. Even if you saw no — look I saw you here,” Baldeh said as the crowd erupted in laughter. “Many people have visited, and that’s how we identified this place as a place that really needs access to quality food.”

Gooh Grocery is located where the former Visions Night Club, a closed down strip club, used to be. The building’s history is strongly tied to its former legacy, but Baldeh and Kujabi are trying to change that.

Since it was built in the 1940s, the building has housed a casino, a bed and breakfast, a strip club and, now, a grocery store.

Politicians from across the state also came out to support Baldeh and Kujabi‘s venture. The duo has been working closely with the community to give back “in a good way,” Baldeh said.

“This is a business… but the business has a community component,” Baldeh said. “As members of this community, we feel it as part of our responsibility to give back.”

Sambeh Balda, center, and Jerreh Kujabi, center right, opened Gooh Grocery on Friday. Among the many dignitaries in attendance were local nonprofit leader Masood Akhtar, left, and Lt. Gov. Sara Rodriquez, right. Photo by Omar Waheed.

Baldeh and Kujabi want to give back by helping mend the gaps in health retail, businesses such as pharmacies, department stores and grocery stores that try to address minor health needs that do not require visits to medical facilities, and alleviate costly alternatives to food in the area.

“Madison has many other spots that are considered food deserts,” Baldeh said. “The reason why health retail is so important is one, it could contribute to living a long life, but it will also help us live healthy. It’s good for us to live healthy so we can be productive, working and be able to contribute to our economy and our society.”

The closest grocery store in the Truax-Hawthorne area prior to Gooh Grocery’s opening is Hy-Vee, 3801 E. Washington Ave., and Aldi, 3925 Lien Rd. Most of the immediate area, besides the few grocery stores, consist of fast-food options.

Health is one of the forefronts of Gooh Grocery as the store has taken a hardline stance against selling alcohol or tobacco.

A strong cultural component also backs Gooh Grocery. Baldeh and Kujabi are originally from The Gambia, but the duo wanted to capture an international grocer environment for the 3,200-square-foot store.

West African, Indian, Mexican and Halal foods line the shelves with staples from each culture. The deli area stocks cold cuts of beef, lamb and goat — meats that are popular in Madison’s growing West African and southeast Asian communities.

The store also stocks staples like cassava flour and cereal and varieties of oils, commonly used in West African cooking; millet; Egyptian rice; finely ground, dust-like coffee grounds used in Arab countries; hard to find African teas and juices; and everyday items like fresh greens and frozen meals.

The store will stock more than 3,000 items,  Baldeh said.

Baldeh and Kujabi spent time thanking everyone who came out, with extra attention to the teams behind bringing Gooh Grocery to fruition, and pointing out the difficulties behind opening a store like theirs that many other entrepreneurs of color face — access to capital.

“One of the biggest challenges we faced, and I’m saying this because the Lieutenant Governor is here, the Mayor is here and all the elected officials are here,” Baldeh said. “Access to capital is the most difficult thing for people of color. If we are talking about diversity, equity and inclusion and all these things — if you are not giving us the opportunity, we are not saying do it for us, but just do what is right. Do what you will for the other person.”

Gooh Grocery is open daily from 9 am to 7 pm.