One by one, familiar faces walk into the Stop N Shop gas station and convenience store inside the Highland Plaza just off Lake Street in Minneapolis, as another business reopens more than a year after being damaged in the riots following the police killing of George Floyd.
With each "hello" and "welcome back," owner Joe Zerka flashes a smile, as does Glenda Pinos, the store manager who has worked at the store for 18 years.
Those faces include a postman who has regularly stopped at the store along his route, and a customer who routinely asks for $10 worth of gas on pump eight. One elderly man in particular felt compelled to wrap his arms around Zerka in the center of the store.
"A lot of people say thank you, and I didn't expect that," Zerka said. "I feel like I'm the one who should be saying thank you."
On Tuesday, Zerka reopened his family's convenience store and gas station, and the adjoined A to Z Tobacco store. It's been more than 16 months since either store was open.
And it was a milestone for Highland Plaza in the rebuilding. These complete the reopenings for original tenants of this strip center at Nicollet and South 1st avenues, one block south of East Lake Street in Minneapolis.
Looters caused more than $1 million in damage to the Stop N Shop store, gas station and tobacco store. After watching security footage, Zerka determined more than $50,000 worth of products from the tobacco store were stolen in less than hour. The destruction of both stores led to the job displacement of 13 people, including Pinos, who worked at Zerka's uncles' store in the interim.
Highland Plaza owner Tom Roberts has spent $5 million to rebuild the center. The mall was one of more than 1,200 commercial properties damaged in Minneapolis and St. Paul in May last year during the riots, generating more than $500 million in estimated damages.
By all accounts, the Highland Plaza is a better strip mall than it was before the riots, said property manager Barry Mahaffey. Most of the façade of the center, which was damaged, has been replaced and storefronts and signage are new, Mahaffey said.
"I'd say it looks a lot better than it did," he said.
Zerka called Roberts and Mahaffey "a gift from God."
"Without them, you wouldn't see this," Zerka said.
Highland Plaza now has only 5,000 square feet of the plaza to fill, about one-third of that in the Office Depot that closed and did not return. The majority of the space was taken over by a new Walgreens.
The Lake Street Council says most businesses damaged during the riots have reopened. The nonprofit estimates restoring the mile-long strip hit the hardest will cost more than $250 million.
Other shopping centers are opening on Lake Street. Earlier this month, Wellington Management held a grand reopening of the Hi-Lake Shopping Center on Lake Street, which includes tenants from Citi Trends and Aldi to Pineda Tacos, FashionExpress and HD Laundry. The redeveloped shopping center now includes retailer Burlington as well.
The Stop N Shop has been rebuilt to almost twice its former size at 4,000 square feet, and now includes a Champs Chicken franchise that Zerka bought into this year. About 10 people work between the three businesses, nearly half of what Zerka needs to operate them. Zerka hired close to 20 people, but more than half failed to show up to work this week, he said.
Zerka's father and uncle bought the store and gas station in 1997. His father, Halim, became the sole owner in 2013, and operated the business until 2016 when health issues forced him to step away. The store was operated by Joe Zerka and his brothers until Joe became the main operator in 2018, at which time he added A to Z Tobacco.
Halim Zerka was unable to see the Stop N Shop restored. He passed away in June after a long battle with progressive supranuclear palsy. He was 69.
"Dad's store" had to survive, Zerka said.
"This was how we put food on the table for my family and I," he said.
It's also an integral part of the Lake Street community.
"This store is smack dab in the middle of so many things," Zerka said. "People would have to go really far (to shop somewhere else) and not everyone can drive. Some people have to walk or they're in wheelchairs or they can't afford metro transit. We're that store for so many people, and have been for so long."
Zerka endured months of sleepless nights, infuriating conversations — or lack there of — with his insurance company, and meetings with contractors, to see Stop N Shop and A to Z Tobacco reopen. On Tuesday, there was finally a sense of relief.
"It felt so right," he said.