by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Midwest
If only the walls of John’s Grocery could talk. The grocery store has been in business for 70 years, which is impressive for a small, family-owned independent retailer. But the building where John’s Grocery is located has been a cornerstone in Iowa City history going back another 100 years.
“Iowa was founded as a state in 1846,” said Doug Alberhasky, third-generation manager and owner of John’s Grocery for the past 30 years. “In the frontier town of Iowa City that was the original state capital of Iowa, they built a dry goods store at our location in 1848. Since there has always been something going at our location for 170 years, it is exemplary of how businesses grow and change in Iowa.”
His grandparents, John and Erma Alberhasky, bought the location in 1948. By that time, the main part of the building was again a store. In the 100 years that passed between its original establishment and the Alberhaskys’ ownership, local progress and evolving national trends impacted its uses.
The building on the corner of Gilbert and Market streets once served as Hose House No. 2 for the Iowa City Fire Department. That moved out when a new City Hall and fire station were built a couple of blocks down. The building would then transition from a hose house to a watering hole. In the mid-1850s, there were three breweries on the block.
“So, the main part of our store became a bar,” Alberhasky told The Shelby Report. “The second floor of the bar was originally a dance hall and then it was made into a perfume factory where they made something called ‘toilet cream.’ Just use your imagination.”
The 1889 bar was what was known as a “tied house,” meaning the bar was tied to a specific brewery. In this case, it was the Pabst Brewery in Milwaukee, so only Pabst Blue Ribbon was sold there. Across the street from the bar was the brewery where Erlanger beer originated. Its somewhat antagonistic motto was “Erlanger, the beer that made Milwaukee jealous.”
Today, John’s Grocery has much more polite partnerships with multiple breweries. Millstream Brewing of Amana now brews John’s Belgian White, which was originally made in honor of the store’s 50th anniversary in 1998. It has won mulitple awards, including a silver medal at the 2007 Great American Beer Festival.
In 1902, an addition was built at the back of the building for apartments. Those spaces today are John’s Grocery’s wine room and deli kitchen.
Prohibition closed down the bar in the 1930s, and the main part of the grocery store moved there.
The building’s beer history is fitting. Without beer, John’s Grocery may not be in business today.
Beer and being first
Like any other independent retailer, John’s Grocery has been through its ups and downs. As it has evolved with the times, some of those highs were lofty indeed. Since the late 1980s, the store’s fine wine, beer and liquor selections have been a continuous draw.
In 2005, Mike Alberhasky, Doug’s brother and the company’s IT manager, set up the John’s Grocery website so that it became one of the first retailers to sell tickets online for an annual Belgium beer celebration. That year, the beer event was held at Kendall Culinary College in Chicago. Every Belgium beer exporter to the U.S. was there and John’s Grocery was the lone retailer in attendance. The store sells more than 120 different Belgian beers.
“It was so funny because here we were in Chicago and people are going, ‘wait a minute, you’re from Iowa. What are you doing here?’ And we said, ‘well, we follow trends just like you do,’” Alberhasky said. “It always pays to be the first kid on the block doing something, and we’ve been very innovative. That’s really allowed us to be able to survive all these years.”
John’s Grocery again found a need for innovation when customers on the coasts began clamoring for brews only available in the Midwest.
“We were shipping out a tremendous amount of beer all over the country,” Alberhasky said. “Then, as the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division began reviewing code for legislative change in 2015, we fell into a legal gray area and were asked to cease and desist all shipping. So, we lost a good chunk of the business and exposure.”
But connoisseurs still find their way to the small, family-operated store. In 2003, it stocked a rare beer. A customer flew his own plane from Anchorage, Alaska, to the Iowa City airport, grabbed a cab to John’s Grocery, bought $1,200 worth of Cantillon Belgian Lambic and then flew back home.
“Everybody always has the picture in the mind of John’s Grocery—with thousands of options in beer, wine and spirits—and they think that we’ve got to be a great big box store,” Alberhasky said. “Then they get here and we’re in a 170-year-old building. It really kind of blows their mind.”
Underneath the store are extensive catacombs with cool temperatures. One area served as Iowa City’s first “refrigerator.”
Today, John’s Grocery uses the catacombs for storage, including for beer. Lots of beer. Alberhasky said some of the store’s beer wholesalers have less product than is down in the catacombs underneath John’s Grocery.
When one side of a cave under the store was to be re-mortared in 2004, it had to be completely emptied. Seizing on the opportunity for a photo, employees took one bottle or can of every beer in the store and set them up in the cave. It took two hours. There were about 600 varieties of beer then. More than 2,000 have been added since.
Innovation has been a family mantra for John’s Grocery since Erma Alberhasky made ham salad sandwiches in the store and sold them for 5 cents to Central Junior High students. Her efforts also saved food that otherwise would have gone to waste. That was the origin of the store’s deli. She started making the sandwiches after seeing the students eating candy for lunch.
“With a junior high right down the block, we had hundreds and hundreds of kids coming in over the noon hour to get sandwiches,” Alberhasky said.
Family has been an important ingredient for success. Doug’s father, William, worked at the store his entire life alongside his six brothers and sisters. John and Erma Alberhasky and their large brood built the family business together.
“As soon as you were old enough to see over the counter you were working,” Doug Alberhasky said. “I started working here when I was six. I’m not sure how much help I was, but I do remember that fondly.”
His grandparents also diversified by buying property to supplement their income. With the University of Iowa nearby, college students often have been renters.
Diversification continues today, with the store’s bakery providing both for John’s Grocery store and local restaurants, for whom it bakes 8,000-10,000 buns each week.
The senior Alberhaskys worked at the store until they passed away in 2010. John died in October and Erma passed away in November.
“My grandpa always said, ‘I’ll retire when I die,’ and that’s pretty much what he did,” Alberhasky said.
Their legacy is secure as John’s Grocery continues to thrive. The store has literally grown over time. When his grandparents took over the building, the store itself was quite small. As time passed, they used the entire first floor of the building for John’s Grocery.
“We’ve added on now eight times, and we still don’t have enough room,” Alberhasky said.
In January of 2016, the store was closed for 12 days so that the floor could be leveled, or close to leveled, anyway. Alberhasky and some of his friends did the work.
“We basically took everything out of the store except for the front counter and our back freezers. We sistered on all new floor joists to the existing ones,” said Alberhasky, who in another life would have been a general contractor. “I wasn’t going for level, I was going for solid. And I only fell through the floor one time.”
In addition, an original window by the front door has been restored. As the store was put back together following the floor work, its configuration changed. A customer told Alberhasky that before the change, “It was like flying down the trench of the Death Star to buy groceries.”
“Now, instead of having a big wall of grocery, you can actually see over all of the grocery shelves,” he said. “It’s much more open. It’s amazing how much more light comes in and how comfortable it is.”
When his grandparents established the store 70 years ago, there were many mom-and-pop corner groceries in Iowa City. They were descendants of provisions stores that long ago were just “a walk away” from home, Alberhasky said. As transportation progressed and bigger stores moved in, the little groceries closed down.
“It got a lot harder for the independents to survive,” he said. “The way that we were able to survive that time was because of our large family. You had a lot of kids running around who were learning the business and that were really integral to running the business.
“It’s called ‘indentured servitude’ more than anything,” Alberhasky added, laughing.