Bizarro Twin Cities #2: Sentyrz / Morelli's

[The Twin Cities are non-identical, but they have a lot of shared traits. Sometimes they really rhyme. Here are some examples, like the Bizarro Jerry and his crew, of places that are a little too alike except for one big small difference.]

Until the recent Trader Joe’s inspired trend of collocating liquor and grocery stores in the same building but with separate entrances, there were only two places* in the Twin Cities where you could find grocery and liquor stores in the same room, produce and meat counters and stacks of beer and frozen pizzas and bottles of discounted Canadian Club all jumbled up together. One was in Saint Paul, and one was in Minneapolis: Morelli’s and Sentyrz, respectively. Somehow both these stores have survived all these years and have become the only place to purchase a can of soup and a six-pack of beer at the same time. 

As a 3rd generation grocery, Sentyrz is literally grandfathered-in, which is why it gets away with its scandalous mixture of booze-and-food. The store sits in a mundane looking building on 2nd Avenue in the heart of Northeast Minneapolis’ booze belt. Somehow, 2nd Avenue seems like a relatively sleepy part of the neighborhood between University and Marshall, but if anywhere North of the Slovakian church has a pulse, it’s Senterz.

With a fresh paint job, an unassuming sign, good-sized parking lot, bike racks, and a well lit entrance, Sentyrz invites you inside with a subtle choice. To the left is the booze; to the right, the food, including the locally renowned meat counter tucked into the back of the store.

(About a mile to the South, the Sentyrz meat loyalty region — MLR— bumps up against that of the more dominant reputation of Kramarczuk’s.)

Somewhere in the middle by the napkin aisle lies the liquid watershed, first two-liter bottles of pop, and then somehow they transform into beer, then wine, then spirits. There are two different checkout lines and I’m not sure but I think you can purchase either commodity from either cashier. At a certain point in the evening the store shuts down its boozy right-brain half, and transforms into a regular late-night grocery store, albeit with an aura of shadowy booze.

[In many cities, purchasing wine and tortillas would just be normal.]

[Unassuming sign.]
[Large mounted fish.]

[Looking from the food over to the booze.]

[Dog at a bike rack at Christmas.]

[The everything store.]

Morelli’s, on the other hand, in typical Saint Paul fashion, is a hodge-podge experience unlike anywhere in town. First of all, it’s cash only, which flies in the face of every possible modern day liquor retail convention. There’s a ATM in the corner, rarely used because the vast majority of patrons are regulars experienced enough to bring a roll of twenties with them.

Compared to Sentyrz, Morelli’s is a bit more hard to find, across Payne Avenue from Swede Hollow at the center of Railroad Island, itself an odd triangle of real estate between the East Side and downtown. The parking lot (currently under construction) is a routine scene of organized mayhem, cars and patrons swarming through the store in search of booze. The outside of the building features a large mural painted on the stucco wall, chock full of Italian-American symbolism.

(Noteworthy 1930s Italian restaurant Yarusso’s is just across the street.)

Inside the swinging metal door is an almost industrial sight, coolers and stacks of boxes forming an entryway to the dueling meat counters, dangling dozens of cured meats and sausages before your eyes. Further on, freezers are stuffed with frozen pizzas, pastas, and sauces, all made under the Morelli’s brand. Following the wall, a smattering of imported foodstuffs — pasta, olives, capers, oil — form a backdrop for the main attraction: the cheapest liquor in the cities. A surplus wine mound in a metal shopping cart, priced below wholesale. Somehow, because they deal in cash, because they exist on an Italian island, everything here costs a few bucks less than it would elsewhere, so it feels like getting a jar of red sauce for free. 

Another detail, a holdover of the communitarian Swede Hollow roots, is the customer service, beginning with the ruthlessly efficient counter staff, elevated high above the masses and brooking no quarter, and ending with the young men schlepping boxes of wine and meat to the trunks of the happy crowd. I once heard a clerk tell a customer, “we’ll carry your items all the way to your car, no matter how far away it is,” and I’ve always been curious to test out the axiom. (I’d have to hire a little old lady for the role.)

Somehow these two stores, on opposite sides of the cities, have survived the tide of specialization and remain forever, grandfathered-in together, at least until the inevitable beer-in-grocery laws arrive.

[Morelli's advertising wall and the then-dormant parking lot.]

[Frozen foodstuffs.]

[Morelli's is famous for advertisements that require a magnifying glass.]

[The website is vintage too.]

[A Morelli's customer demonstrating the correct meat counter posture.]

* OK, there are actually three if you count Dannecker’s on Randolph, which I really don’t. Have you ever been there? Then you know why. There’s barely a pretense of either booze or food. That place is like a booze+foot futon that’s been left out on the curb for a while and it rained on it and now even though it’s mostly dried out it's not quite and you sit on it for some reason and you shouldn't have done that.

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