Berlin has Spätis, Japanese citizens flock to its convenience stores, and New York City residents swear by their beloved bodegas.
Iowa City has the long-standing John’s Grocery.
John’s Grocery has been serving the Iowa City community for the last 75 years, a trusty mainstay in a forever-changing landscape. For most of the Iowa City residents, this local market has played a crucial role whether for a college beer and food run or during the holidays for forgotten ingredients.
Doug Alberhasky is a seventh-generation Iowa City resident and the fourth-generation owner of John’s Grocery, initially opened in 1948 by his grandparents, John and Erma Alberhasky.
In a town known for emphasizing local, John’s Grocery is the only independent grocery store in Iowa City. The Iowa Grocery Industry Association has 140 independent grocer members left — about one-tenth of their total membership base and slightly fewer than the 156 Hy-Vee stores.
John’s Grocery has evolved with the times, offering nearly anything a person needs from a neighborhood store.
“The fact that after 75 years in our family, we are not just surviving, we are thriving, it is a testament to our family,” Alberhasky said. “We’ve got not only four generations of our family here but four generations of customers.”
The origins of John’s Grocery
John Alberhasky, a third-generation Iowa City resident, married his wife, Erma, on Dec. 31, 1941, two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was motivated to join the Navy and help fight in World War II.
John sent money back to Erma and the family while he was stationed in Honolulu for three years. John returned to Iowa City when the war ended and immediately went to work for his brother Bernie at the Fox Head Tavern, Iowa City’s oldest running bar. John realized providing for his soon-to-be family of five was going to be difficult working for someone else, inspiring him to open John’s Grocery in 1948.
The building at 401 E. Market Street was a revolving door of business before the Alberhaskys took over. From a dry goods store to a firehouse, a bar, and even a perfume factory, the location was a lightning rod for activity.
The storefront operated as four different grocery stores from 1930 to 1943 before John and Erma Alberhasky purchased the building.
“When my grandparents opened, there were 28 other family-owned corner groceries in Iowa City, and we’re the last one,” said Doug.
John’s Grocery withstood the boom of one-stop-shop supermarkets, like Hy-Vee, in the 1960s as a completely family-owned grocery retailer. As the community’s needs changed, John’s Grocery evolved, but at its core, it remained a family affair. John and Erma’s children started working at the store just as they could see over the counter. The familiar lineage includes Bill Alberhasky, Doug’s father, the second-generation owner of John’s Grocery, who passed away in 2022.
The Alberhaskys each are motivated by an unofficial family motto: “You never stop working at John’s; the days just get shorter.”
Doug credits luck for the lasting success of John’s Grocery.
“And it comes down to heart. And it comes down to family,” he said.
A beer lover’s dream in the heart of Iowa City
At its core, John’s Grocery is just a grocery store that happens to have the largest beer and spirits selection in Iowa.
“We have always kept to our core of being a grocery store. We care of our neighbors, where somebody can come in and get their cat food, frozen pizza, or ice cream. It’s in our name,” Doug said. “At times, we struggle with that. We are more than a grocery store, but when it’s in the name, how do people from out of town know that we are a world-class beer, wine, and liquor store? We are always educating customers on who we are.”
Doug started working full-time at John’s Grocery in 1985, alongside his dad and grandpa. He worked his way into a managerial role by 1989, bolstered by a food store management degree from Kirkwood Community College.
Much like his grandpa John, Doug was blessed with a stroke of luck, stepping in as manager just as the microbrewery revolution arrived in Iowa City.
John’s Grocery has always been known as a go-to for beer, but when Doug took over, he capitalized on the boom of specialty beers. John’s Grocery was one of the few places to get indie beers.
“It seemed like every week we’re getting in 10 new beers, and I knew at that point that we needed more room, so we were trying to Jenga out the right space for what we have and started to move coolers,” Doug said. “In the mid-90s is when I really made my space here.”
By 2005, John’s Grocery was named one of the top beer sellers in the United States by All About Beer Magazine, which led John’s to make space for the now iconic beer room.
Iowa City has since blossomed into one of the most diverse beer cities in Iowa, with many different breweries opening in the last few decades.
John’s Grocery stakes its claim as one of the earliest onto the craft beer scene, Doug said.
“I knew we did our job when Guinness started to be considered a mainstream beer on tap,” he said.
At John’s Grocery store, the shopping experience transcends the ordinary. The staff members are not just employees but master storytellers ready to guide you through a world of flavors and memories. They possess a knack for uncovering that elusive niche wine that instantly transports customers back to their days abroad. They help customers remember the beer that changed their lives. John’s also may simply be the only place to find a favorite candy bar.
“We’re a shopping experience. We have the expertise on beer, wine, and liquor to guide you to whatever you’re looking for,” Doug said. “But we also have all of the necessities that you need.”
Doug has philanthropic ties with community organizations like Boy Scouts and is a lead organizer for festivals like Oktoberfest and BrewFest, giving back to the community tenfold.
“Knowing how hard it is to do business in this day and age, you know, I only support local business,” Doug said. “The reason why small business works is because small businesses sports, other small businesses.”
A heartfelt goodbye to a grocery staple
John’s Grocery’s growth and evolution were inevitable.
Doug remembers John’s Grocery as an old-fashioned grocery store with more than 100 different types of candy, a meat department, and a full-service deli.
Erma Alberhasky’s famous potato salad and deli sandwiches were favorites for many since 1950. Sadly, John’s Grocery ceased its kitchen operation last year, ending a 70-year run.
“The closing down or deli was the hardest decision I’ve ever made,” Doug said. “We had had such an amazing deli, and you know that that was such a huge part of who we were in what we did, but it wasn’t viable anymore, and knowing that people were going to be disappointed was really hard.”
The Future of John’s Grocery
Sticking with what John’s is known for is essential, but so is innovating.
The store remains committed to preserving its historical allure despite not being under the protective wing of the historical society,
A significant milestone arrived in 2016 when the store underwent a rapid interior remodel within 24 hours. The renovation included updated floors carefully selected to replicate the original flooring of the building, ensuring that the store retained its nostalgic charm.
Doug’s son, JD Alberhasky, started working at John’s Grocery at nine months old, starring in a local commercial spot. JD spent his summers and weekends in high school working at John’s. He’ll be shadowing his dad for the next decade before taking over full operations. He’s learning the ropes through familiar osmosis, much like his dad did in the 1980s.
JD will be the fourth generation to run the store and is currently learning the business and finding new ways to invigorate new shoppers.
“I went to school for marketing, and I want to start growing our social media footprint,” JD said. “It’s been a good way to put our name out there even more than it already is because there are new students at the University of Iowa every year, and they have no idea what John’s Grocery is what we stand for.”
JD demonstrated a knack for entrepreneurship at a young age, helping create Sodafest at the Northside Oktoberfest, an event John’s Grocery has participated in since 2011.
“One of my dad’s favorite stories is when I was standing in the back selling popcorn for Boy Scouts, and I asked someone if they want to buy popcorn, and they said, ‘Sir, I don’t have any money,'” JD said. “I was 10 years old, and I said, ‘It’s okay, we have an ATM inside.”
Staying ahead of the trends is vital to the store’s success, John’s Grocery general manager Chris Moore said.
He started 10 years ago as the beer manager and took over as GM in 2021.
“Iowa is always two years behind the trends,” Moore said. “We’ll get tipped off once the hot thing and try to work towards it, like, we had high noon stocked for two or three years before it became a big deal.”
John’s Grocery became one of the first retailers to sell Climbing Kites cannabis-infused sparkling water, a legal way to ingest THC in Iowa. The drink is popular at music festivals and is a current best-seller at John’s.
“It’s nice just to be like the first guy on the block to have the stuff everyone wants,” JD said.
Memories galore at John’s
The idea of Iowa City without John’s Grocery seems inconceivable to many, a sentiment deeply felt by the store’s dedicated employees. The business is a testament to its integral place within the community.
JD only realized the impact when he went to college.
“All the friends that I’ve made their parents say, ‘Oh, I used to shop at Johns all the time, we love this store,'” he said.
Like JD, Moore is dedicated to John’s for the long haul. He met his wife working at John’s.
The store’s charm and shopping experience feel as if it can’t be replicated, which keeps customers coming back.
“They went here in college, so coming back here as an adult is kind of cool,” Moore said. “This place does change regularly, and we’ve done a good job over the years of changing our business model to match what the consumer wants. When people haven’t been here in 20 years, they can’t believe what this place looks like because it is different than when they shopped here.”
“They always come back, though,” JD added.
In the spirit of the holiday season and celebrating 75 years, John’s Grocery is hosting an open house from 4-6 p.m. Dec. 6. Local breweries will host tastings of beer, wine, and liquor and a raffle will be held for top-shelf products.
John’s Grocery is open seven days a week, Sunday through Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to Midnight.
John’s Grocery is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving day.
Jessica Rish is an entertainment, dining and business reporter for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. She can be reached at JRish@presscitizen.com or on X, formerly known as Twitter, @rishjessica_