Nobody comes to Gloria’s Grocery with a shopping list, and there’s no menu for the sandwiches and plates that owner Gloria Hilliard prepares for her customers right behind the long, low counter.
There is no need.
Most passers-by know what they want: a cold beer, a pack of cigarettes, a hot sausage sandwich or Monday red beans. Hilliard and his family know the people well too.
“Goodbye mom, I love you,” said a woman who walked towards the door.
“I love you more,” Gloria said in response, in a practiced tone, like the answer to a prayer.
Hilliard, who turned 83 in June, has run this convenience store in the 4th arrondissement for more than half a century. Through its doors, it has seen the passage of time and the passing of generations, but also the continuity of New Orleans neighborhood life.
Gloria’s grocery store, and the multi-generational role of her family running it, is a big part of that consistency in this part of town. Today, Gloria runs the store with her daughter Phyllis Hilliard and grandson Tommy Hilliard, who is Phyllis’ eldest.
“It’s always the same people from the neighborhood that I found here, so it’s fine,” said Gloria. “Even when people leave, even the ones we lost after Katrina, they still have family here and they still drop by.”
Family, food, community
Gloria’s Grocery is really more about people than groceries, sandwiches or plates.
It maintains the corner of rue Derbigny Nord and rue Conti. It is one block from the Claiborne Avenue Viaduct, a historic gathering place for many of the city’s black community, and one block from a much newer route, the Lafitte greenwaywith its cycle and pedestrian path and its playgrounds.
From the street, it’s another unremarkable clapboard building with a small hand-painted sign on one wall and a faded banner advertising its name on another. Step inside, however, and Gloria’s reveals an interwoven tapestry of family, friends, and community.
The long, single grocery shelf behind the counter is part retail display, part tribute to long-standing relationships. It is a collection of graduation photos, holiday snapshots, old Christmas cards, portraits of parents from past generations and Zulu coconuts, interspersed with stacks, a mix boxed corn muffins, ramen noodles, game dice, pacifiers and Twinkies.
The store is a place people come to for a midday beer, a pantry staple, a homemade lunch, or an impromptu happy hour as the evening gathers.
For some, it’s simply a place to be.
“I make all my food at home. I cook just about everything. I just like to come and sit for a while,” said Ruby McCoy, who was relaxing in one of the few chairs placed against the wood-panelled walls.
The 82-year-old lives three blocks away and walks there every day after visiting the church. She celebrated a few birthdays herself at the store.
“It’s a nice grocery store,” she said. “It’s very peaceful. There are no humbugs or anything like that.
Regulars watch Saints games on the store’s TV during football season and weekday afternoon soap operas. Mardi Gras is the busiest day in the store, with the Zulu parade passing nearby.
But Gloria’s also frequently becomes the venue for smaller, more personal celebrations.
It has hosted family wedding receptions and baby showers, with sheets hanging on the shelves for a change of look.
A client, known as Buckman, made a deathbed request to have his viewing at Gloria’s, so all of his friends there could say goodbye.
“I don’t want to say it was a funeral, but the body was out here before the hearse came to take it to the cemetery,” Tommy Hilliard said.
“A lot of people don’t go to the funeral home, but they will come here,” Gloria said. “He was a great customer.”
Change and constancy
The district, known to urban planners as the Tulane-Gravier neighborhood, has undergone significant demographic changes. The percentage of black residents fell from 78% in 2000 to 65% in 2019, according to the New Orleans Data Center. There was a corresponding increase in the number of white residents and, in particular, Latino residents around this time.
The demolition and redevelopment of the former Iberville housing complex, which began in 2013, marked a major change, particularly in terms of the number of children who lived nearby. Many came to the store for sweets and treats.
Now some nearby homes are short-term rentals, and it’s common to see travelers arriving on Thursdays for weekend stays, fiddling with door access codes with their luggage in tow.
But the Hilliards say it didn’t change the beats of Gloria’s Grocery much, and that’s because of Gloria herself.
queen, legend, mom
Gloria Hilliard was born Glory Cummings; when people started calling her Gloria, she rode with it. But it has many other names. Around the store, she is known as the queen, the legend, the mom and the grandmother, and by many more than her real family.
“Even when we go out somewhere, everyone knows me as Mrs. Gloria’s daughter,” Phyllis said.
Gloria grew up in a rural setting outside of St. Francisville, along the road that still leads to the Angola State Penitentiary. She was one of nine children in her family. All had to find a job or go to university.
“They said if you don’t want to go to college, you better call someone to pick you up,” Gloria recalled of her parents.
Hilliard went to work, and she moved to New Orleans in 1957 at the age of 18 for jobs at local hospitals. She eventually met her first husband, the late Fisher Hilliard, a cement mason, and the two started a family.
Before being at Gloria’s, the corner store was called Bert’s Market and was run by another black family. Gloria and Fisher rented an apartment attached to the store, where they raised their children. When Bert White decided to retire, he sold the store to them.
“We went from back to front; isn’t that something? Gloria laughed.
They reopened the store as Gloria’s Grocery on July 4, 1970.
The store has evolved over the years. There used to be more groceries on the shelves for home cooks; now it’s more about sandwiches and hot meals, beer and the occasional grocery item. Today, Gloria still does most of the cooking, including grilling hot sausage patties for sandwiches and making dishes that change daily, from smothered cabbage with cornbread on Thursdays to fried fish. Friday.
And then there are dishes that Gloria can concoct on special request.
“Just yell at me in the morning, and I can have it for you,” she said.
Gloria’s role in the neighborhood also grew. She has become the matriarch of a large family of regulars, guardian of the social ties woven here.
“Mom gave her some swag,” Phyllis said. “She gets along with all the young people. They watch over mom.
“Sometimes I have to worry (customers) if they miss me,” Gloria admitted. “But they know I love them.”
When it comes to the store’s future, Gloria takes it day by day, while reminding Phyllis and Tommy that the next chapters will be up to them.
“I’m just happy to be here. I’m getting old, but I’ve been healthy,” Gloria said before knocking on a nearby piece of wood.
“It’s the glory of God, that’s why I’m still here at 83, still working, still with all my wonderful family and clients,” she said. “It’s the glory of God.”
Gloria’s Grocery is at 1800 Conti St. The store is open daily from 10 a.m., except Sundays when the store opens “after church”, around 1 p.m.