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Historic Northeast Grocer Paying Employees While They Rebuild, Heal From Fire

Laura Ziegler
Employees of Snyder's grocery got paychecks even though the store is closed for repair after deadly fire.

The 18 employees of Snyder’s grocery store at 2620 Independence Avenue in Kansas City's Historic Northeast got paychecks this week, even though they haven’t been to work for over a month.

The family owned business just east of Paseo has been there for 48 years, and the James family has run it for the last 28.

The building sits directly east of where a deadly fire killed two firefighters on Oct. 12. The west walls of  Snyder's were totally blown out, and their entire inventory destroyed.

Wednesday morning, General Manager Janelle James stood outside the UMB Bank a few miles from the store and handed out paychecks, one by one.

“How’s everyone doing?” she chirped.

“Kind of bored, not working,” said one middle-aged employee.

“We’ll get you back to work soon,” James said, “ and you’ll be yelling because I’m asking you to unload semis full of food!”

As they went in to the bank to cash their checks, James said having to close down the shop was a hardship for everyone.

Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR
The owners of Snyder's grocery store hope to have the shop open by the new year.

Not only are her employees out of work, but the family is no longer able to provide services to the community — like check cashing.

Her voice cracks and some tears fall as she talks about how  family members decided immediately to keep everyone on the payroll while they were rebuilding.

There’s been a lot of support from the community, she says.

“There have been a lot of messages on Facebook, and people have sent letters, too. We’ll get through this,” she says.

One of the hardest things is watching those whose lives have been disrupted, James says.

Teresa Brown, for example, lived in the apartments that burned down in the fire. She remembers the night well.

“I was the one hollering to get everyone out except the ones we had to get off the second floor balcony,” she says.

She stayed with her sister for a few days. Then she was able to move to a new place because she continued to receive her paycheck from Snyder's.

Maurice Wheeler stocks shelves at Snyder’s. He says his life revolves around his job.

“It’s truly a blessing to keep getting paid," Wheeler says. "I miss work, truly I do.” 

The dozen or so other businesses on the block were closed anywhere from several days to several weeks.

Sharif’s home décor shop is directly across the street from the site of the fire. Owner AgilNool sits alone in his cavernous store.  Brilliantly colored Middle Eastern rugs hang from the ceiling. Housewares and perfumes line the shelves. The air smells of roses. 

Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR
Agil Nool of Sharif home decor says all the businesses in the community rely on one another.

He says business has been slow to come back.

“Since the fire, three weeks no open, whole area is dead, nobody on the street,” he says.

Many here don’t have checking accounts, Nool says.

They used to cash their paychecks at Snyder's, but now they come to him.

He has to send them miles away – to the Price Chopper.

Losing Snyder's, even temporarily, is devastating to the neighborhood.

“Businesses work together,” Nool says. “Some people, they buy over there (at Snyder’s),  then they come here.  Right now nobody goes there. Nobody comes here. Business come little bit down.”

Next door, Ram Chandra, the manager of Rambo's Chicken & Burgers is just opening for the day.

Rambo's was brand new on Independence Avenue when the fire happened. In fact, it opened the same day.

Immediately, it had to close for three weeks while authorities blocked off the street. Chandra says people never had a chance to learn they were there.

Business is coming slowly, he says, but he’s not worried. His problems are insignificant compared to the real loss the fire caused.

“Yeah we lose some money,” Chandra says. “But life doesn’t come. Two firemen die. That’s  the important thing. Business come, business go. The man's life not gonna come back.”

Back at the bank, Janelle James and her father are taking their newly paid, out-of-work employees to a restaurant for an early Thanksgiving meal.

They hope to have the store open — with all new inventory and modern features — by the beginning of the 2016.

Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can find her at zieglerl@umkc.edu and on Twitter, @laurazig.

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
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