Ideal Grocery was a neighborhood market -- the type of store that would pack your produce in brown paper sacks, advertise its specials on butcher paper banners and carry your groceries to your car.
But it was so much bigger than its neighborhood.
Even as Lincoln grew, the city’s oldest market -- and its reputation for service, for specialty items, for its full-service meat counter -- continued to pull loyal customers back to the heart of town and into the compact store.
“Our customer base was pretty wide. It wasn’t just the 27th and Randolph area,” said former owner Jim Moore, whose grandfather started Ideal as a one-aisle store nearly a century ago. “I remember two sisters who lived in Seward, and they did all of their shopping with us.”
It wasn’t unusual for several generations of the same family to shop there -- on the same day. Or for food stamp-paying customers to be in line next to CEOs.
But Thursday morning, nobody was getting near the store at 27th and F. Ash-blackened water pooled near the front door, the street outside was closed behind yellow caution tape and firefighters were rolling up their hoses after a long night.
A police officer responding to a burglar alarm just after 2 a.m. spotted the fire, which is believed to be accidental and to have started in the compressor room before spreading to the rest of the 17,000-square-foot store. At one point overnight, flames leaped 30 feet above the roof, and two-thirds of Lincoln’s fire resources were on the scene.
Nobody was injured in the fire, but Lincoln Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Jeremy Gegg declared the building a total loss at 5 a.m.
And it's too soon to say whether it will return, said co-owner Chad Winters of Leon’s Gourmet Grocer, which bought Ideal in 2012.
He and his partners are still looking at all of the possibilities, he said.
“I think we certainly hope we could rebuild. We invested in Ideal four years ago because we thought it was a landmark in Lincoln that was in jeopardy of closing.”
Winters was notified of the burglar alarm early Thursday and was headed to 27th Street when he received the fire alarm, too. The blaze was out of control by the time he arrived.
“It’s really hard to put into words, but it’s like the loss of a family member. It’s something we put a lot of our hearts into.”
The store had 20 to 30 full- and part-time employees. But it also had good insurance, Winters said, which will provide benefits to those workers, some for two months, others for 12.
As the sun rose Thursday, authorities were worried that what remained of the building could collapse onto 27th Street. And those who had shopped there or worked there, or both, were already mourning.
They stood across the street, taking photos. They filled the store’s Facebook page with condolences and eulogies and memories, calling the loss tragic and devastating.
Eli Evnen woke to a text message in Brooklyn, New York. Then he went online and saw the photos.
“It was so sad,” the 25-year-old said.
He remembered his father, Richard, taking him shopping at Ideal when he was young, and the owner telling the pair they’d just missed his grandmother, Elaine, and his great-grandmother, Dorothy.
He got his first job there bagging groceries as a 15-year-old, the same job his grandfather, Everett, held when he was a teen.
His employers emphasized treating people well, he said. Sometimes, that meant going out on a limb -- if someone was a little short at the register, trust them to return and pay what they owe.
“I feel like everything I’ve learned has started with Ideal and its customer service,” he said. “It’s been so valuable.”
Gardner Moore opened Moore and Meyer’s Ideal Grocery in 1920 near 27th and Randolph. The store moved a few times and grew a few times and was considered, at one point, Nebraska’s largest grocery. It bought and leveled neighboring houses so it could advertise “oceans of parking,” said local historian Jim McKee.
When McKee started shopping there religiously in the 1960s, Gardner Moore was still running Ideal. But he was an old man by then, and one of his managers would wheel him from his car to the store and back to his car in a carryout cart.
The service kept McKee coming back. Where else could he select the third pork chop from the back, or ask for one jalapeno from a pack of three, or buy a single peach?
“It’s like losing an old friend,” he said Thursday.
The store stayed in the Moore family for decades, with Gardner’s son Jack taking over, and then his grandson, Jim.
Ideal employees got used to seeing the same customers week after week, Jim Moore said, and he thinks it’s because they often saw them as more than customers.
“It’s always something we tried to figure out. I would say, for the most part, the simplest way to put it was our customers became our friends.”
When Pam May returned to Lincoln in 1992, and moved into the neighborhood, her mother gave her some advice.
“She said, ‘If you’re ever having a bad day, just go to Ideal.’”
Sure, May thought.
But then she started going to Ideal, and it worked.
“They greet you at the door. You just became friends with them and they were so personal.”
She’s been a loyal customer since -- she’s a fan of Ideal’s chicken salad -- and stopped there just last week for lingonberry sauce.
She also became a third-generation shopper, following the aisles first walked by her grandmother, Eva Sorensen, in the 1920s, and then her mother, Marilyn Ward.
Ideal was the kind of store where women dressed up to shop on Saturdays, said former employee Emerson Trupp.
“In the ‘80s and ‘90s it was the place to see and be seen,” he said.
Dick Cavett used to come in, and Bob Kerrey and Debra Winger. Helen Boosalis.
Trupp grew up in the Woods Park Neighborhood, where every kid wanted to work at Ideal. Some of the 31-year-old’s earliest memories are from shopping at the store with his parents -- cleaning its parking lot for candy bars when he was 7 or 8.
He eventually became a paid employee, working his way up from sacker to checker and on to jobs in almost every department.
“They didn’t treat you like you were young,” he said. “They treated you like a young professional. I learned a lot about life and business there.”
He rushed to 27th and Randolph in his robe after hearing about the fire. He saw one of the store’s former partners outside, and he and Bill Ellenwood stood watching, hugging each other and shedding a few tears.
“I literally went there every day of my life, it was an institution.”