Independent close-up: gastronomy to go

Photo courtesy of Ghent Grab & Go,

NORFOLK, Virginia – A former art gallery, Ghent Grab & Go has been curating new types of masterpieces since the convenience store opened in late 2021.

Owners Dilanka “Dee” Perera and her husband Sean Vantwest converted the former gallery into what is now a thriving 2,800 square foot convenience store in Norfolk, Va., making a difference in the local market by focusing on international style products that are difficult to locate in the region. They receive help in running the store from their two employees, including their 15-year-old son Kenul.

A graduate of Old Dominion University with a degree in accounting, Perera had worked for a local company until she dabbled in retail. Vantwest worked full-time at his former retail business, Creek Food Mart, an international grocery and convenience store in Norfolk.

Vantwest continues to tune in 80 hours a week to Ghent Grab & Go, with Perera taking on a part-time role as she cares for their baby girl.

“Both came from families with business backgrounds and had a passion to start something like this on our own,” said Perera, who is originally from Sri Lanka. “Over the years we have observed and learned what people are looking for in other retail environments, mainly by studying trends. We decided to focus on international products because this community is so diverse, with people all over the world.

Perera and Vantwest recognized an opportunity with Ghent Grab & Go because there were few, if any, viable convenience stores near their unit except for a 7-Eleven. Food choices include fresh salads and wraps, foot-long hot dogs with chili and cheese, bagels and cream cheese, pastries, and desserts. Some exotic offerings include chutney, beef curry paste, and spices from the Caribbean and Sri Lanka.

“We were eager to mix the two [models of convenience and grocery], and favor quick take-out items with an international flair (Italian, Indian, Latin, etc.). We offer groceries from all over the world. In fact, a local magazine [Veer] wrote a story about us with the title “Around the world in 80 seconds” [a nod to the way c-stores provide quick, efficient service].”

Read ahead for a conversation with Perera about what she and Vantwest hope to achieve in 2022 and beyond.

Q: Among other things, you have chosen to focus on the merchandising of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Can you elaborate?

A: We offer a pina colada mocktail and four different types of made-to-order smoothies, as well as several types of tea and beverages from our coffee bar, including cappuccino, coffee mocha, and white chocolate mocha. We have soft dairy free pineapple treats and Italian and French wines [ranging from $7 to $75 per bottle]. The idea of ​​non-alcoholic spirits was actually a hunch we had, and the response from the community has been amazing.

Q: Describe what you experienced before the opening at the end of December 2021?

A: We initially thought that the post-pandemic period would be the perfect time to prepare everything, but instead found that we were unable to acquire the supplies and equipment we needed, such as than digital menu boards, mixers – it was a three months of waiting because everything was delayed. Even obtaining permits from the city was problematic. We were pressed for time, money and accumulated frustration. Fortunately, we have reached the six-month mark [in June] and have two reliable employees. We have come a long way and still have a lot to accomplish.

Q: How would you describe the store’s customers? From locals to vacationers to other types of people passing through the region?

A: The #1 clientele we aim to serve are locals. We have had tremendous support from the local community, which is determined to see small businesses succeed. The NEON District [New Energy of Norfolk, an official arts district, advocates for local business and supports culture and the arts]. In addition, there are office complexes that not only help us as regular customers, but they tag us on Facebook. There are hotels in the area and a hospital with a medical school nearby.

Q: What other food and beverage categories are/have been thriving, and is their success due to major pricing/promotional/presentation initiatives?

A: We serve curry and rice, sandwiches like Caprese, Santa Fe turkey and roasted vegetables. We make sandwiches to order and use an off-site commercial kitchen where the curry is to be produced. We also sell fresh produce, which is essential because there are very few fresh produce outlets nearby: we work with local farmers to source it. June is big for strawberries, then we move on to squash, zucchini, blueberries, local mushrooms and more.

Q: Describe the breadth and depth of your supplier network?

A: We have several suppliers. Sean and I are from Sri Lanka and have wholesalers who supply us with all types of spices and ethnic ingredients. At first we had to travel to New York to get some items, but luckily we found the items closer to home.

Q: What are some of your goals for the rest of 2022 and into 2023?

A: For the next six months we are very excited to expand the menu as we only serve a portion of what we imagine [offering]. We struggled to get several types of food including chicken and even espresso. There is a vacant store next to us and we would like to expand into this space to expand our takeout advantage. We want to become a destination where people know how to come to us to eat and drink.

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