At 3554 E. Washington Ave., the strippers and bartenders are long gone. In their place are coolers of smoked African fish, an all-Halal meat counter and aisles packed with international foods. The former Visions Night Club, Madison’s last strip club, is now Gooh Grocery.
The transformation of the two-story building on East Washington Ave. and Stoughton Road took about two years longer than planned. But with help from two city of Madison funding programs, it opened its doors earlier this month, bringing an array of meats, fresh produce and pantry items to a former food desert.
“It’s coming together pretty good, I guess,” said co-owner Samba Baldeh, a former District 17 alder who now represents Madison’s District 48 in Wisconsin’s State Assembly, as he surveyed the space earlier this week.
Baldeh and his co-owner Jerreh Kujabi, an entrepreneur and network engineer for the Sun Prairie Area School District, are both from the West African country of The Gambia, and much of the store caters to Madison’s African community.
There are big bags of whole tea leaves and bottles of the fruit-flavored Vimto soft drink. There are at least a dozen options for dates, the fruit Muslims eat to break the Ramadan fast. There are a few popular African fish, including barracuda. There are jars of nut-stuffed “Super Honey,” plastic jugs filled with thick orange palm oil, and bags of the spice blend Za’atar by the pound. In the freezer are rings of bobolo (fermented cassava root wrapped in banana leaves) and bags of ugu (pumpkin leaves) and callaloo (amaranth).
“Some of these things I’ve never tried,” Baldeh said. “That’s the thing with Africa: It’s diverse as … the continent of America or the continent of Europe.”
The store’s name, pronounced “Go-oh,” means “the one” in Fulani, one of the languages spoken in West Africa. But the owners have also stocked the store with a variety of other local communities in mind, including Hmong and Southeast Asian Madisonians, along with everyone in the neighborhood who’s had to cross two interstates to get to the Hy-Vee (previously the closest grocery store) without a car.
The goal: Bring them what they’ve had trouble finding elsewhere, whether that’s jollof rice, mango lassi, or just a few more groceries than the nearby Kwik Trip convenience store offers.
But shoppers will have to look elsewhere for alcohol and tobacco products. In a press release, the owners said they were forgoing those products because they’re “committed to the health of the community.”
Already, the store has attracted a diverse set of customers, including an Indian-Pakistani couple who saw the store on the news and drove an hour to check it out, Baldeh said.
“I think it’s really very mixed, which is really, really what we want the grocery to be,” Baldeh said.
To each of those customers, cashiers are instructed to ask what they looked for but didn’t find. “We’re still trying to figure out what brings people here,” Baldeh said, noting that one customer, when asked, gave a page-long list of requests. Baldeh said he’s taking every customer request to the supplier to see if the store can start stocking it.
“Whatever [they’re] looking for that is not here, let us know and we’ll find a way to get it here,” Baldeh said. “We really want this to be a community thing. We don’t want people to say, ‘Well, the grocery store is here but I’m still struggling.”
As of Tuesday, staff were still working out kinks in the grocery checkout software. The full-service butcher counter, which will sell lamb, beef and sometimes goat – all slaughtered in accordance with Halal rules – had yet to open.
But Baldeh anticipated that all would be ready by the grand opening, scheduled for Friday, Jan. 26 at 2 p.m. The event will feature a handful of speakers, including Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, plus food and drinks made from products the store sells.
Ruthie Hauge, a Chicagoland native, is photo director at the Cap Times. She received a bachelor’s in fine arts from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and was a photographer for Sun-Times Media in the Chicago area before joining the Cap Times in 2020.
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