John’s Grocery began serving customers freshly prepared food in the 1950s, a few years after the family-owned store opened in 1948. John Alberhasky’s wife Erma “couldn’t stand seeing all of the junior high kids eating penny candy for lunch, so [she] started making nickel ham-salad sandwiches and [her] famous potato salad,” according to the store’s website.
In the seven decades that followed, the food from John’s kitchen became an Iowa City favorite. For decades, customers have enjoyed items Emma made into store traditions: the classic deli sandwiches and, of course, the potato salad. More choices were eventually added: self-served baked goods, cheeseburgers and the much-loved fried chicken, which has been voted some of the best fried chicken in the state.
Despite those decades of success, the kitchen will be closed indefinitely starting at the end of this week. John’s is shifting its focus to expanding in other areas, such as online shopping, Doug Alberhasky, the store’s manager, explained.
Doug is the grandson of John and Erma, and the third generation of his family to work in the store, which his father William currently owns.
Alberhasky told Little Village the store’s kitchen would need to be completely renovated to continue using it, and city regulations would require major and expensive additions such as a fire suppression system.
“Change is inevitable. This was something that we labored over for a very long time,” Alberhasky said. “In looking at the significant investment we were going to have to make, we couldn’t make the numbers work.”
Although change is inevitable, Alberhasky said he is certain that the family business will continue to serve its customers for generations to come. John’s Grocery is a neighborhood staple for the Northside, and is known for having one of the largest selections of specialty beer and wine in town.
“We’ve had the best holiday season we’ve ever said,” Alberhasky said. “It’s important for us to keep this going. When my grandparents opened the business, there were 28 other family-owned corner stores operating in Iowa City. Being the last one, it’s a source of pride for me. I’m going to do everything I can to ensure this business continues so I can hand it off to my son.”