Talking Shop with Robert Gentry, the Corner Grocery Store

Monday, April 18, 2011
Robert Gentry is owner of The Corner Grocery Store in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

When Save-A-Lot closed its doors near downtown Cape Girardeau, Robert Gentry saw it as an opportunity. Shortly after, he and his wife. Mary. opened the Corner Grocery Store, a mom-and-pop operation that sells the usual fare of bread, milk and several shelves of other grocery items. But the store at 439 Broadway, now in its fifth year, also offers T-shirts, jewelry and what the owners promise is "the world's greatest grilled cheese sandwich." Don't kid him about that. He means it and defies anyone who tries the sandwich to tell him different.

Question: Why do you feel it's important to have your business downtown?

Answer: There's a lot of people who work and live in this neighborhood. A lot of those people don't have transportation, so we knew there was a great need for this type of business. There are also a ton of people downtown. They're used to having a grocery store or a drugstore in the area, so we saw that as an opportunity to serve those people, too.

Q: Tell us a little about your background.

A: I have a health care background. I've done various work in the health care industry for over 35 years. I've worked in hospitals, nursing homes. I've been the director of ADFs, adult living facilities. I've managed other businesses, too. I managed a restaurant before in the past, a little restaurant in Caruthersville.

Q: What do you like about owning a business downtown?

A: I think the most exciting thing downtown is often the very thing that is not utilized very much and that's the Mississippi River. We see a lot of people come into town to look at that and appreciate that and they stop in to the store. I know the city's been working on a DREAM initiative, and then there's the casino. Not to say the casino would be the silver bullet to bring life and growth into Cape all by itself, but I think it has its way it will help out, by helping to pull a lot more people into downtown Cape.

Q: It takes some courage to say that you sell the world's greatest grilled cheese sandwich.

A: (Laughs) We wanted a signature sandwich. My wife's mother had always made a delicious grilled cheese sandwich, and we took her recipe and embellished it a little bit. It's all about the cheese. We use a combination of cheeses. And presentation goes a long way, too. We like to make it look as good as it tastes.

Q: This is an eclectic shop. You have grocery items, T-shirts, jewelry. But no alcohol. Was that a conscious decision?

A: That was very much a conscious decision. We wanted everyone to feel safe and comfortable coming into our business, with being uncomfortable like it is going into a liquor store and all the other elements that hinge around alcohol sales.

Q: Best part of the job?

A: The best part of my job, without question, is talking to people. It is the best part. I've had a lot of jobs that were part public relations, talking to people -- patients or the patient's family and I know the importance of trying to communicate with people the way they want to be communicated with. And I love to talk. That's the best part.

Q: Are there any drawbacks to being downtown?

A: Right now, the only drawback is, of course, the vacant buildings on Broadway. For any business to thrive, it's all about the congestion of the other buildings. When you have storefronts filled, you get that congestion of people coming and going. Businesses can feed off of other businesses. That's the major drawback now. There are quite a few vacant storefronts in the Broadway area.

Q: Define for me what it means to be a neighborhood store.

A: A neighborhood store is simply one that interacts with the neighbors. When we first opened, we went out and actually introduced ourselves to the neighborhood. This was a well-established neighborhood when we got here, so we felt like we were the new neighbors moving in. That means that you bring yourself to the community. You have to cater to their needs, their wants. This is a very diverse neighborhood -- college students, folks who live in the neighborhood and the people who work here. We have a large demographic of people and we want to cater to their tastes and wants. That's how we feel we are trying to work with them.

Q: What is a typical Corner Store customer?

A: We have been very fortunate. We have a lot of support from the businesses right up and down Main Street and Broadway. ... But we know our serious obligation is to address the needs of the folks who actually live in this five-block radius from Sprigg to Main and William Street to North Street. That's why we're here.

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