A massive tornado that ravaged Annapolis homes and businesses on Sept. 1, 2021, could have spelled the end for the newest international grocery store in Annapolis.
But Walter Vasquez, owner of the six-month-old Annapolis International Market, pooled his resources and used outside assistance to rebuild the West Street grocery better than it was before. Vasquez and his business partner, Wilmer Romero, worked for months, aided by community organizations that helped with extensive repairs, to reopen the Annapolis International Market more than a year later on Sept. 28.
“We had a choice to make, either we were gonna just get our insurance money and cut ties with the market, or we were going to bring it back even better,” Vasquez said. “It was a fairly easy decision.”
The tornado hit around 2 p.m., Vasquez recalled. His first concern was for the safety of his employees who had worked at the store since it opened in January 2021.
“Me and my daughter were just getting ice cream down the street when we saw the big white clouds forming,” Vasquez recalls. “We pulled over to let it pass and it felt like horses racing, but it only lasted about 30 seconds.”
The category EF-2 Fujita scale tornado, caused by remnants of Tropical Depression Ida, brought winds peaking at 125 miles per hour and covered more than 11 miles in less than 30 minutes, according to the National Weather Service. The twister touched down in Owensville before traveling northeast toward Annapolis. It wrecked homes in Edgewater and smashed businesses concentrated on West Street. Thirty-eight people were displaced by the storm, three buildings were destroyed, 24 were condemned, 26 structures had major damage and 49 had minor damage, according to Annapolis inspectors.
As Vaquez drove to his West Street market to make sure everyone was OK, he saw downed trees and power lines. His primary goal was to check on the three employees he had working and get them back to their homes.
The next day, the scope of the storm damage to his business started to sink in.
“We had our roof ripped off, we lost most of our inventory and we lost our office with all of our paperwork,” Vasquez said. “It was just a very difficult situation.”
Other businesses were beyond repair, like Chris’s Charcoal Pit, a Greek restaurant on West Street that had its roof torn off and equipment irreparably damaged. The restaurant remains closed, Stavroulla Herodotou, who co-owns the shop with her husband, Kyros, has high hopes that she can come back soon.
“We are excited to continue serving the Annapolis community,” she said. “After the tornado we got so much help from the community, especially from Jeanne Campbell-Poole and the Annapolis Takeout Facebook group. The help kept us afloat at times.”
The community is what motivates Vasquez as well.
When he started the market in early 2021, Vasquez wanted to bring the melting pot vibe that he grew up with in Miami. He felt like the market could bring people together.
“I was so used to seeing people in the stores everywhere mixing and mingling, integrating, and soaking in each other’s culture,” Vasquez said. “That’s why we wanted to keep this business running. Annapolis needs it.”
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To make sure the market would reopen better than before, Vasquez and Romero used insurance money, disaster relief loans from the Small Business Administration that were later turned into grants, and cash out of their own pockets.
The Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. also provided $5,000 microgrants to Annapolis International Market and Chris’s Charcoal Pit, as well as Cricket Wireless, Panther Auto Body and Cecil Memorial United Methodist Church. The microgrants were funded through the TD Charitable Foundation, the charitable giving arm of TD Bank, then administered by AAEDC.
To get his grocery to comply with City Code, Vasquez had to rebuild the storeroom and freezer area and renovate the bathrooms. But they didn’t stop there.
They decided to use additional space that wasn’t being fully utilized previously to open a butcher shop. And soon they will have a juice stand inside the market, he said.
“There isn’t a butcher in this area that specializes in cuts of meat primarily from Latin America,” Vasquez said. “We also spent over $75,000 just to bring in our own tortilla maker. Tortillas are a staple in Latin dishes. Soon, we hope people will be able to complete all their grocery needs here.”
Vasquez and Romero understand there’s still a lot of work to be done as they are still sorting through some supply chain issues, but they have taken steps in the right direction.
“We have been working so hard to bring the market back and make it better because we love this community and we feel like people here deserve somewhere they can call home,” Romero said.