People ask my brother and me many questions when they enter Boxcar. Sometimes it is just about the food we sell. Other times, folks want to know when, oh when, will we start serving prepared food. Some people just want to know if we are twins or not. Overall though, the one question that we keep getting is this:
What made you decide to open a natural foods store?
The question usually has me telling different stories to different people.
We saw a need and we decided to fill it.
My brother and I always wanted to work together and this harnessed our complimentary skill sets.
We wanted to create a model that is distinctly urban but tied to something distinctly rural to move the food movement forward.
All of these are true without telling the whole story. The actual answer to that question is very simple: we were taught to value land.
We value land in a deep way that allowed us to hold onto land when many people were fixing and flipping, over and over and over, and sadly, when people were underwater and getting foreclosed. From a very young age our dad instilled in us an understanding of what owning land meant, what it allows you to do, and why you should always try to keep it. We were able to hold onto an important piece of land that he passed on to us after his death even during one of the worst recessions this country has ever seen.
More than anything, the way he taught us to value land means responsibility: to the land itself, to any people who may be on the land, to maintaining the land so it is there to pass to the next generation. We were not taught to be real estate moguls or speculators or developers. Quite the opposite. For the most part we were given exposure to a number of educational experiences as children – nature excursions, Space Camp, equestrian camp, art classes, sports camps, travel, etc – and left alone to decide what we wanted to do with our lives. Our parents were not the types to try to make us do or become anything we did not want to do or become. What they did do was instill strong educational values that laid the foundation for where we are today.
Sure, there was a little disappointment when when I decided not to further my architecture studies beyond the Ivy League undergrad degree I already had. And Alphonzo’s MFA in film rather than MBA in finance made multiple veins stand out on my dad’s neck – our artistic selves dominating our business selves – but now that we have amassed a certain amount of life experience, the values and the experiences have collided to create Boxcar Grocer.
Valuing land, in its deepest, most essential way, means valuing life. And right now, more than ever, valuing life means valuing the food and the food systems that support our nurturing. Healthy food and clean water are the hub of any successful community. These are the important issues of the 21st century as we become more involved in understanding where our food comes from and what corporations are doing to our water. America, has in 1.5 generations, become less successful of a community overall from a health perspective. The major illnesses plaguing this country can be traced directly to deficiencies in our current food system so we decided to address it.
But we are social entrepreneurs, not philanthropists. The challenge for us, from the beginning, was how do we tap into helping create a new food system based on valuing the land and the people involved all along the way and also provide a model business that is economically viable and can grow and sustain our families? How do we up the cool factor of eating healthy? How can we get lots and lots of people access to eating organic, enough to have a Boxcar Grocer in at least 10 locations in each major metropolitan area in the next 5 to 8 years, each linked to a network of at least 10 small farms that helps allow those small organic farms to be self-sustaining? How, essentially, do we become the Starbucks of organic food?
Those are the real questions we ask each other. They are the questions my brother and I ask each other constantly. They guide our decisions and provide for healthy debates every time we sit down to eat.
Any business takes a certain amount of cultivation but, as with the produce we see, some sprout faster than others. From an investment perspective, what we’re doing is slow money. It is not the most attractive investment vehicle to many people who want to see rapid returns. Our location was predetermined by the sheer fact that this is the land we have. But when one looks at the economic opportunities that can occur when something like this helps up the cache of a particular neighborhood, well, then the economic development piece of the puzzle starts to come into focus. The self-sufficiency of a community that many people have blown off, comes into focus. We are not economists but we have enough sense to know these are valuable things.
The change we’ve seen in the community since we’ve opened the door has been quite rapid. We only opened 7 weeks ago and the transformation of this dead corner into a vibrant, life filled place where we’ve introduced neighbors to each other, where people have come to depend on our doors being open, where we are rooted to our community while keeping our eyes on the bigger picture, these things are quantifiable.
This is our land. These are our people.
Being hyper local in our physical space while building the business is helping us to create a model that actually works for the community and values the land we are tied to.
Being expansive in our intellectual/business realm is helping us to create a model that can be replicated.
Being true to our values makes us determined to create a lasting model that will succeed.
© 2012 The Boxcar Grocer.