Talk of the Town

Intown Market owner's dream comes true with upscale Atlanta store.

By
Samantha Strong Murphey, Freelance writer

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Ten years ago, Sulu Jaffer was an insurance agent in Los Angeles, arduously selling door to door, dreaming of a better life. He was also burned out, eager for another profession that would yield better long-term outcomes and work-life balance—and more freedom for creativity. He wanted to have a family and an outlet for his imagination. His friend Amin Chitawala had left the insurance industry years earlier and moved across the country, opening six successful convenience stores in Atlanta. Chitawala persuaded Jaffer to fly out for a short trip to see his stores and explore new opportunities.

And explore they did. One of the properties they eyeballed sat in the heart of downtown Atlanta. The building was an eyesore, to be sure, but rested in a recently gentrified area.

“It was a total dump,” Jaffer recalls. “Cockroaches and everything. Amin and I were both thinking, ‘What a waste.’ ”

The owner wasn’t interested in selling, but Jaffer, tired of knocking on doors in a seemingly dead-end job, was swelling with enthusiasm. He convinced the owner to hand over the deed. And just like that, Jaffer was in business with Chitawala by his side, not as a business partner but as a friend and mentor.

“I found myself sitting in Amin’s office two hours before my flight back to LA signing the (loan) contract,” Jaffer says. “I moved to Atlanta a month later.”

Today, 8 years since that visit, in the place of cockroaches sits a posh little market with a gorgeous wine cellar, one of many signs of Jaffer’s innovative abilities. He now owns two stores, Midtown Market and nearby Intown Market, and is father to a 7-year old boy and 18-monthold twin girls. His brother, David, left the insurance industry to become his partner, and his wife and children live nearby. Chitawala, who now owns 15 stores in the greater Atlanta area, still works closely with Jaffer. They help each other with remodels and swap ideas.

In short, Sulu Jaffer has realized his dream.

How’s the Atmosphere?

While some cry, “location, location, location,” Jaffer shouts, “atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere.” Don’t get us wrong; his location is great. Intown Market, which Jaffer opened a little more than two years ago, is across the street from a MARTA transit station in a street-level space in an upscale apartment building. It’s just a stone’s throw away from Georgia State campus and the Martin Luther King Jr. birth home in a developing area on the outskirts of downtown Atlanta. But for Jaffer, what’s inside the store is just as important as what’s around it.

Unfinished pine shelves line the walls and elegant wine bottles line the shelves. Vintage posters are hung here and there. Chalkboard paint on cinder block posts offers a place for scribbled promotions. There’s the stand-alone freezer, filled to the brim with pints of Ben & Jerry’s, and the crates and aluminum barrels that give the room a farmers’-market feel. The craft beers—some with antiqued labels in dulled colors, some with modern fonts and neon colors—are scattered about, artfully arranged among rows of traditional c-store items: chips and candy bars, toiletries and medicines. It’s well-designed randomness, but it’s not jam-packed.

“I think a lot of c-stores these days are just overcrowded,” Jaffer says. “They think the more they carry, the more they will sell. But I think it turns people off. There are certain necessities every store has to have, but you don’t have to put every item in your store.” In his store, there’s the wall of cooler doors richly stocked with soft drinks and juices leading customers’ eyes back to the beer vault in the corner (Jaffer’s “baby”). Its entranced is adorned with a mural created, interestingly enough, by Jaffer’s plumber, for whom painting is an after-hours hobby. Above the door, handpainted brown bottles and beer cans pop up behind a vintage banner scroll with the words “Beer Cave” flourished across it in ink-black paint. Bubbles and deep red stars explode out of the drinks in celebration. With lots of budding artists living in nearby lofts, showcasing local talent is an important part of keeping Jaffer’s store atmosphere in tune with his customers.

A Place for the Hungry

Salami-red and mustard-yellow walls— everything about the space makes you ready for lunch. And thankfully, at Intown Market, lunch is always served up right. One corner of the store is devoted to a highly trafficked deli. Jaffer and his brother routinely rotate the menu while maintaining their staple sandwiches, the most popular of which is the Dagwood: thick-sliced premium Boar’s Head meats with sharp cheeses, fresh vegetables and your choice of house-made specialty mayo. Jalapeno? Roasted red pepper? Pesto? Take your pick.

Thea Gray, a resident of nearby Decatur, makes the trip into the city a few times a month just to get a sandwich at Intown Market.

“The Dagwood and Philly Steak are delicious,” she says, wiping her mouth after a quick stop for lunch. “I’m hooked.”

The deli also serves ready-made to-go sandwiches and salads. Peach cobbler and banana pudding, signs of the South, are easy to spot in the refrigerated case. Jaffer brought in an outside to-go pizza vendor, thinking it would be popular with the local college students who come in, but so far the deli is outselling it two to one.

“I feel like I can put a c-store together anywhere, anytime, but the whole concept of food is new to us,” Jaffer says. There’s been some trial and error. “We started off really high-end, making our own hummus, but the demand wasn’t there for it,” he says. “The area is too mixed. It’s still very urban here. So we caved in to the Philly.”

Jaffer brought on a professional chef to help create a menu and understand culinary crafting, and it wasn’t long before the deli became a signature staple.

Bread-and-Butter Beer

The other most successful segment is alcohol. It’s the bread and butter of the business. Coming from California, Jaffer was into wine when he designed the Midtown store’s wine cellar, but the Intown Market crowd demands a different product line. Although it does offer great deals on wines (three for $10.99, anyone?) craft beers are the store’s focus. It has more than 200 varieties, some of which ring up at more than $18 a six-pack. A few months back, Jaffer ordered just one case of highly sought-after CBS beer from Founders.

“Three weeks before it came into my store, I had a list of 30 people who wanted that beer,” he says.

Jaffer and David do all they can to stay on top of new beers. Customers can follow Jaffer on Facebook and Twitter, where he posts updates of the new ones he has in stock. The brothers have toured many local breweries and plan to visit at least three out-of-state breweries every year.

Jaffer installed growlers in the store last summer, and his sales of tap beer continue to rise. He generally offers some classic beers and some seasonal beers that cannot be found in the bottle.

Service Through Service

Jaffer considers his strength to be in his concept, and he says that one of the most important components of any store concept is quality service. When you order a sandwich at the Intown Market deli counter, you’re met with the wide smile and warm humor of Robert Norwood.

“What are you in the mood for?” Norwood asks the next customers in line.

“Somethin’ good,” they reply.

“Healthy or good?” he says with a chuckle. Now the deli manager, Norwood came to Jaffer a year ago as resident of a local center, which helps incarcerated individuals make healthy transitions back into normal life. “He’d had experience with food working at Fuddruckers and was very motivated,” says Jaffer. So now, Jaffer makes it a point to reach out to the center every time he’s hiring. It’s his way of giving back to the community and helping people who need a second chance. Four of his current employees were found through the center. He takes care of them but demands a high level of performance. And David helps train them.

“We take the time to make sure they understand what our core values are,” Jaffer explains. “We want them to get to know the customers: their buying habits, their families, whatever it is that makes them happy or unhappy. David and I are always around to set the example, so our employees know what to do.”

Dream On

For Jaffer, the future looks bright. He has plans to expand Intown Market, adding more space for seating in the deli area, more storage and an office. He’s looking to gradually build the technology and infrastructure necessary to start running deli deliveries and catering. He can also look forward to the business district around him growing. A popular comedy club is moving to a space a few doors down, which will draw in new customers.

Jaffer says one of the most important factors in plans for expansion, and perhaps expansion to more stores, is having a banker who believes in him and David. Black Mar, now with Regions Bank, has been crucial to their success. “He understands our concept,” says Jaffer.

“He understands our niche market and accepts the fact that when we say we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it.”

Especially in the current financial market, where funding sources are close to dry, Jaffer knows that’s a huge asset. “David and I wanted to design a store that was safe for our wives to walk into alone late at night,” Jaffer says.

But they’ve done much more than that. They’ve created a unique spot that’s well on its way to becoming a community icon.

“We just stocked what we would like to buy, served what we would like to eat, and treated our customers the way we would want to be treated,” he says. “And along the way, we created something customers wanted.”  

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