LAWRENCE — With baskets of fresh fruit, just-squeezed juices and a host of organic and vegan meal options, it's almost hard to believe a new storefront downtown was last a Methodist church.
Casabe, a fruit store and delicatessen, opened in early February at 276 Essex St.
"People have been very, very supportive," said owner Wendy Luzon, who employs eight people at Casabe.
"They are very receptive to the concept and how things look. They are happy to see a place like this in Lawrence," she said.
The word Casabe refers to round, crispy flatbread made of cassava (yuca) flour. The bread dominated the diet of the Taino, the indigenous people of the Caribbean, and is sold at Casabe.
Luzon, a community activist and former neighborhood planner, said an overhaul of her and her family's own eating habits during the COVID-19 pandemic inspired her to open the health-driven market and deli.
"I needed to change my eating habits and that made a difference for me and my family," said Luzon.
She explained that being stuck at home, "eating too much" and having "less energy" were an issue.
"I decided I needed to make a change. ... And there was no other business around like this," said Luzon, who also owns a demolition and asbestos removal company and is an outreach specialist for MassHire.
A variety of different oils, such as avocado and coconut, fresh juices including as sugar cane, green and orange, farm fresh eggs, daily specials, sandwiches and salad bowls are available. Luzon also has a wine selection and carries beer, including cans from the nearby Spicket River Brewery.
Luzon said she initially got the spark for the business in August and started planning. Along the way, some suggested to her she might have better luck if she opened up in the nearby communities of Andover or Methuen.
But Luzon stressed she's a proud woman from Lawrence. And she would like nothing more than to see Essex Street return to the shopping hustle and bustle it had in years' past.
"I said, 'I live here and I want to invest here so that people are healthy and can find the food they need to stay healthy," she said. "People want to see Essex Street back to its glory."
As a mother of grown children, including her stepdaughter, Indra Polanco, 29, who works at Casabe, Luzon noted, "I am grateful to this city."
"You have to invest in your city. You have to stay here," she said. "And I think more people are starting to think like me."
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.