Business owner Ephrame Kassaye didn’t doubt that people would flock to Mellon Convenience Store when he opened it in Southeast Washington in 2008. It sat along bustling Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue near a bus stop and stayed open 24 hours.
A steady stream of customers handed over cash and D.C. government debit cards for sodas, chips, cigarettes, lottery tickets, canned and frozen groceries, and household sundries. He didn’t sell alcohol. Customers liked the welcoming vibe of the store but paid Kassaye and his staff through bulletproof glass he’d installed for protection.
On Sunday, there were no glass walls between Kassaye, 35, and his customers as hundreds of residents lined up outside for the Mellon Convenience Store Thanksgiving Turkey Giveaway and block party. The store owner milled around, hugging customers and hoping that the 375 birds he’d bought would be enough.
The third annual giveaway was a cheerful moment for an area of the city with pockets of poverty and attention-grabbing crime, such as the homicide last month of a gas station attendant. Police said the attendant was shot across the street from Kassaye’s store by a patron who had taken a gun to the store.
“Without the people who live in the community, I am nothing,” Kassaye said. “I just want to tell them thank you. They deserve this.”
Volunteers steamed hot dogs and buns and gave them out with chips and drinks while a DJ played and the young and not-so-young bounced and danced to Mary J. Blige and go-go band Rare Essence.
Ronald Requilman, 59, who came out early Sunday to help Kassaye with the setup, looked around at the smiling children and orderly line and said he was proud to assist. The four police officers on the scene for crowd control had little to do.
“Southeast does have some good things happening, and this is one of them,” Requilman said.
Kassaye, originally from Eritrea, is proud to tell customers that he lives in the District. He is married with a 7-year-old daughter. He said he was interested in owning a business for as long as he can remember and worked as a cabdriver and as a bellboy in downtown hotels before opening the store.
Within two years, he had made back the more than $100,000 he invested to renovate and lease the building, a former church. He could have kept on just like that — buying inventory, taking customers’ money, replacing the shelves with more inventory. But Kassaye wanted to do more.
He’s not sure how the idea started, but one day he found himself calling around asking where he could buy hundreds of frozen turkeys. He talked to police at the local precinct about how to get a permit to close off Mellon Street for a block party.
He reached out to the local advisory neighborhood commission representative for community support, and in 2009 the turkey giveaway was born. He said he spent about $6,500 on Sunday’s event.
Mary Cuthbert, the ANC representative for Congress Heights, was initially worried about the kind of crowd an all-night convenience store might attract, although Kassaye didn’t plan to sell alcohol.
Eventually, she agreed to assist Kassaye with the turkey giveaway. She also helps out when he does a giveaway for backpacks and school supplies over the summer.
“You have to give and take as a commissioner. So I decided to work with him to see if we can work things out,” Cuthbert said.
Cuthbert was at her usual spot Sunday at the front of the line, screening IDs and utility bills and turning away anyone who couldn’t produce an address or lived outside Ward 8. She said there are bigger and more well-known Thanksgiving donation events in the area — notably one by D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) — but Cuthbert said Kassaye’s smaller event fills a need.
“I see a lot of people here who really don’t have the finances to buy a turkey,” Cuthbert said. “He gets money from Congress Heights, and now he’s giving back to the community.”
After the last turkey was given away, there were some long faces but no complaints.
Kathy Bailey, 50, said she appreciated the free turkey, but what she likes most about Mellon Convenience is her experience with the store on all the other days.
“The glass is for security, but it’s not a barrier at all,” Bailey said. “They are so nice to people. They speak, and they’re friendly. I just feel very comfortable shopping there.”
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