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4 beyond-the-box urban stores

4 beyond-the-box urban stores

Lack of education and money isn't the only thing cramping the expansion of healthy food. Meet four natural retailers who are reimagining the concept of the urban grocery.

When we think of food deserts, we often picture low-income, urban areas overrun with convenience stores and Taco Bells, but a few retailers around the country are defying this trend.

The prevailing assumption is that residents either don’t know what they’re missing or don’t have the means or motivation to travel for fresh food. But factors beyond socioeconomics can conspire to create food deserts. Insufficient space, heavy traffic flow, high rent costs and other obstacles can make it tough for retailers to turn profits, leaving potential consumers wanting for a spot to shop.

But what if retailers rethought the very parameters of what makes a store?

Realistically, everything from store size to shape to services offered could be open to reimagination, and a few tweaks just might enable retail success in cramped, congested or commuter neighborhoods. For instance, a city block may not be able to house a 40,000-square-foot supermarket, but there could be enough space for a small natural products store. And what if the classic urban standby, the corner store, sold organic frozen burritos instead of Twinkies and Fritos? How about if a shop bucked brick and mortar and was constructed entirely from recycled, sustainable materials?

A few innovative retailers across the nation are, in one way or another, turning the traditional definition of what constitutes a food store on its head. Although their long-term profitability and impact on community health may not be solidified for some time, these pioneers are attempting to show that food deserts can in fact become oases for retail opportunities.

Innovative grocery store concepts

Archer Market and Cam's Grocery, Tulsa

With new restaurants, condos and lofts popping up in downtown Tulsa, Okla., you might not think fresh food would be a tough find. But in reality, residents and workers in this urban community have had nowhere but convenience stores to go to since a local Safeway closed years ago.

Now, two innovative grocers are set to open this spring within blocks of each other. With a 2,000-square-foot market and 2,500-square-foot kitchen, Archer Market will offer a cold-cereal bar, full-service sandwich and salad counter, rotating menu of hot breakfasts and lunches, premade picnic baskets, and home and office deliveries.

Cam’s Grocery down the road will focus on organic products, locally grown produce, hormone-free meats and herbal remedies, and will also offer an in-store café and home delivery. Cam’s has already been busy building an active co-op–like community on Facebook.

The Boxcar Grocer, Atlanta

In many urban areas, convenience stores sit on nearly every corner. They’re usually emporiums of cigarettes, soda and salty snacks—but the small size and quick-and-easy-to-shop setup are simply what traditionally works in cramped inner-city neighborhoods.

The Boxcar Grocer has breathed new life into the corner-store concept, keeping the small size and convenience but ditching the nutrient-void fare. The retailer opened in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill neighborhood in November 2011, brimming with organic and locally made food.

By working with area farms and manufacturers to shorten the supply chain, it’s able to offer healthy options at affordable prices to a community that previously had limited access. Boxcar also recently introduced POP Food, a program that lets outside food vendors sell fresh-made, mostly organic food from in-store stalls, kind of like a pop-up farmers’ market. 

Stockbox Grocers, Seattle

Efforts to supply fresh food to underserved areas have included food trucks and other mobile and temporary vendors, but these often have limited hours of operation or are dependent on weather and season. To make healthy food access more reliable, one retailer debuted an innovative, ecologically friendly concept in a Seattle neighborhood that’s packed with people but lacking a grocer within walking distance. Stockbox Grocers constructed a 20-foot-long mini-store out of upcycled shipping containers and plopped it into a parking lot.

Stocked with fresh food—predominantly perishables and other high-turnover commodities such as milk and meat—Stockbox gives local residents a convenient spot to grab good food on their way to work or home. The prototype store opened last fall, and the founders plan to build two permanent markets this spring. 

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