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Keeping the corner store alive in New Orleans

By Dalton Bender

Singleton's: the last corner store in the Black Pearl

Singleton's: the last corner store in the Black Pearl

Every day, a colorful cast of local characters parades in and out of Singleton’s Po-Boys & Mini Mart, a bustling corner store tucked away on Garfield Street at the foot of the Mississippi River levee. Not one of them leaves without paying his or her respects to Beau Nguyen, Singleton’s personable proprietor.

“We really are a neighborhood store,” says Nguyen, known affectionately to his customers as “Mr. Beau.”  “We know everybody in this area by first name.”

Nguyen has owned and operated Singleton’s since Christmas of 1999. It’s located in the Black Pearl, a small, triangular neighborhood just south of the point where St. Charles meets S. Carrollton avenue. The area takes its name from the predominantly African-American community that first settled there, many of them originally servants following the movement of wealthy residents upriver along St. Charles as New Orleans expanded.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the Black Pearl experienced a period of marked decay. The community lost a sizable chunk of its inhabitants, and nearly all of the neighborhood’s commercial enterprises and corner shops were closed down.

Except for one. Singleton’s is the last corner grocery and kitchen in its neck of the River Bend.

Mastering the po-boy was owner Beau Nguyen's secret to initial success.

Mastering the po-boy was owner Mr. Beau's path to success.

In a city that, perhaps more than any other in America, prides itself on the character and community of its neighborhoods, the corner store holds pride of place. Corner stores, beyond providing basic staples to local residents, act as social nexuses, sites where neighbors congregate to eat, drink, and converse.

“This is a very close-knit neighborhood,” Nguyen says.  “[We’re] just like family.”

Nguyen is no stranger to overcoming hardship himself.  Born in 1961 in Vietnam, he and his family escaped Saigon in 1975, just a week before the fall of the city to North Vietnamese military forces.  Three refugee camps later, the 14-year-old finally arrived in the United States.

After meeting his wife, Laura (another Vietnamese refugee), in 1980 during his first visit to New Orleans, the two married and moved to southern California, where they opened a furniture store. A faltering economy sank Nguyen’s first operation, and forced a relocation back to New Orleans in 1993, where Laura’s family was based. The couple then bought a corner grocery in Gentilly, Will’s Market, where the seeds of their future business success took root.

After a year of financial difficulty, he says, he began looking at the business models of other, more successful stores and noticed a pattern.

“It’s the cooking,” Nguyen says, motioning behind him to his prep station and large, glass-cased food warmer, a 16-year-old holdover from the original Gentilly store. “It’s the food that brings the money in.”

Nguyen installed a kitchen in his store and he and Laura, with little prior cooking experience, quickly learned the tools of the New Orleans culinary trade, mastering one of the city’s most timeless dishes – the po-boy.

Roadblocks surfaced again in 1999 when the Nguyens lost the lease to their building. When they moved to the Black Pearl neighborhood, the couple had a more well-defined idea of their operations – Nguyen began envisioning how he would revise the layout of the establishment upon his first visit to the building.

“There was no window here,” Nguyen says, pointing to the window that now faces Garfield Street at the front of the store.  “It was just really run-down and dirty.”

After completing renovations, the couple opened their new enterprise, which has remained in constant operation ever since – barring an eight-week period of extensive renovation after a tornado strike in early 2007.

These days, Singleton’s is firmly entrenched in the fabric of the Black Pearl neighborhood, a prominent eatery and social spot for residents.

“We watch out for people,” Nguyen says.  “People know we help out a lot.”

That was true after Hurricane Katrina when, astoundingly, Nguyen was able to keep his store open on Monday, Aug. 30, 2015 – the day the storm passed over New Orleans – relying on a generator for power. Singleton’s remained open for more than a week in the anarchic aftermath of the hurricane, providing much-needed necessities to those who had stayed in the city.

“A lot of old folks around here stayed,” Nguyen remembers.  “They didn’t know how hard it would get. So during Katrina I would cook and bring food to them.”  When the water was shut off on Thursday, Nguyen made nightly rounds to the nearby houses, carrying 5-gallon buckets of water to elderly residents.

The food at Singleton’s likely has an equally large stake in the loyal following that has formed around the corner store. Nguyen says that similarities between Cajun and Vietnamese cooking styles helped the couple adapt to the landscape of New Orleans cuisine.

“All the food is well-seasoned,” Nguyen says, speaking both of local Cajun dishes and of the food indigenous to Vietnam.  “You season it overnight – that’s when all the flavors come together.”

In the summertime, recalling a “cook-what-you-grow” ideology from his native Vietnam, Nguyen grows herbs, spices, and a selection of vegetables in a backyard garden, which he uses in his cooking for the store.

“When you get your bowl of pho,” Nguyen says, referring to a popular Vietnamese dish of rice noodles, herbs, and meat served in an all-important piquant broth, “you get a basket of bean sprouts, mint, jalapeño – everything is fresh.”  The popular dish, besides being a spicy Vietnamese staple, is also one of the best cures for a hangover, Nguyen adds with a hearty laugh.

The Vietnamese menu, added a little over a year ago when the Nguyens were trying to increase Saturday business, has wildly increased the store’s popularity.

“The Vietnamese food right now is really hot,” Nguyen says.  “It’s healthy, it’s fresh, and people really like it. Now Saturday is our busiest day.”

This article by Dalton Bender is published as part of a service learning partnership between NolaVie and the students of Dr. Diane Grams' sociology classes at Tulane University.