Ahead of Friday’s reopening, a look inside the renovated Tops on Jefferson Avenue
A new front facade. More emergency exits. A water wall memorial for the victims.
Some community members got their first glimpse Thursday of what Tops Markets officials call a complete redesign and overhaul of their Jefferson Avenue grocery store following the May 14 racist mass shooting there.
Tops held a ceremony in the store parking lot and provided a tour of the inside for public officials, community leaders and the media ahead of its reopening. The store is expected to be open to the public by 10 a.m. Friday.
Tops President John Persons declined to say how much the Williamsville-based company invested in the renovation, but said it needed to follow through on the commitment it made when building the store back in 2003 to offer an oasis in a food desert.
“We felt very comfortable early on that people needed and wanted a store as soon as we could possibly provide it,” he said. “We also understood that we needed to take steps to give them the best possible food retail store that we could, and for it to be different, for it to look different, feel different, something to be proud of that would serve them better.”
In the two months since the shooting, the store has gotten new flooring, paint, lighting, equipment and signage. There’s more product in the store, too, including 25% percent more produce, and a bigger selection of health and beauty products.
In addition, there’s new video monitors displaying healthy food recipes.
There’s also a memorial for the victims, a water wall inscribed with Buffalo Poet Laureate Jillian Hanesworth’s poem, “Water.” Tops officials said the victims’ names were not included on the memorial “to respect the requests of some of the victims’ loved ones.
As for security, Tops officials said they’ve added more guards and emergency exits, as well as a new evacuation alarm. There’s also been additional active shooter training for employees.
“It was no matter what happens, I am coming back in this store,” said the store’s produce manager, Rose Marie Wysocki.
Re-entering the store was difficult at first, Wysocki said, but she’s excited to see customers return on Friday. She added that she and her co-workers now have a decompression room if things get tough.
“We're going to need that time, we're going to need that time to maybe step away and take that two minutes, three minutes, whatever we need,” she said.
Wysocki and her other Tops employees wore black “Jefferson Strong” t-shirts Thursday. Wysocki said she coined the term herself.
“Everybody was saying, ‘We're Buffalo strong. We're Tops strong.’ And I just all of a sudden went, ‘No, we're Jefferson strong,’” she said. “Yes, this happened at Tops. Yes, this happened to Buffalo. But it happened on Jefferson Avenue. And this whole community has always been a strong community. But now we're stronger than ever.”
While Wysocki felt passionate about returning to the store, about a quarter of its employees chose not to return.
Persons said 76% of those employed at the store May 14 have returned to work, and Tops has offered to transfer the others to other stores or help them find new careers if they so choose. He added that 10% of employees have expressed wanting to return to the store at some point in the future.
“We want them to come back at their own pace,” he said. "We want them to feel comfortable about working again.”
And there are those in the community who say it’s too traumatizing to ever step foot in the store again. An online petition is calling for it to remain closed, at least temporarily, so as not to “re-traumatize” the community.
Persons said he understands those concerns, but that building a new store would have taken two to three years, and the community couldn’t wait that long for its one and only grocery store to return.
“And from our perspective, we think being able to reopen to the community respectfully and honorably for the community and for the families of the victims and for our associates in two months, versus two-and-a-half or three years, we think is the right decision,” he said.
Before the tour, a moment of remembrance was held in the parking lot.
Several public officials gave remarks, including Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who called the store “sacred ground.”
“And in the days, the weeks, the months, the years to come, it will be a national and worldwide example of a place of triumph,” he said.
There was also an interpretive dance by the African American Cultural Center’s Jacqueline Cherry. About two-and-a-half minutes into the performance, the music cut out.
But after a few moments, those in attendance began to spontaneously sing the song instead.
“You are the source of my strength,” they sang.