I wish we had the luxury of just running a store. Being able to focus on our business that exists inside four walls on a street near downtown Atlanta would be a huge boon for productivity. Sadly, as a Black business owner located in a Black business district in a low income area our daily concerns involve more than just groceries.
When you think of neighborhood markets popping up in low access urban areas your mind probably conjures pictures of bright fruits and vegetables adorning farm tables and children and families gratefully filling their baskets.
While people have expressed their gratitude that we opened a store where no other businesses would, the actual day to day of our business is quite different from what you think. We began The Boxcar Grocer as a way to illustrate the power that food has to transform not only our individual bodies but also the collective community. By aligning health with food access, we always believed that improving diets along with various means towards a more equitable distribution of capital can help revitalize neighborhoods. Our partnerships with local urban farms and food producers supports this idea and has enabled us to reach far beyond the confines of the neighborhood in which we reside to help educate and nourish people who have few options for real food nearby. Our business has generated thousands of dollars for people in the community including local vendors, city government, the power company, and the many people we have employed.
To be clear, my brother and I still do not earn a salary from this business where we work 6 days a week and more than 12 hours a day. Why? Because the costs of running a business in a veritable food swamp are much higher than you think.
The purpose of writing this is for clarity, not complaint. The point is not to decry the lack of profits that we have made over the last 3 years as we built this social experiment into a bonafide force for change but to help remove the veneer of ease that people seem to think comes with opening a new store when nothing structurally evident around that store can support its growth in the neighborhood because of a lack of overall investment for decades.
This is a small neighborhood, not a high density area in a city where people aren’t really prone to walking so we don’t get a whole lot of foot traffic. Our space is about 1,400 square feet. About the size of an average two bedroom apartment. It exists on a strip of street where vacant and crumbling buildings are the only buffer between Castleberry Hill and City Hall. At one end of our street is a homeless mission, on the other side of the train tracks in the other direction is a jail and a Greyhound Bus station. There are some low density residential units once Trinity Street turns into Peters Street. The city makes more money selling space to film crews who come to this neighborhood to block down the streets and use them for gritty crime dramas than any of the businesses generate due to lack of parking.
Within American culture that does not value work that it does not see for products that do not come with status symbols that can be flaunted to improve self-esteem, food is expected to be cheaper than it actually costs to get it into your hands. Food overall is not marked up excessively like clothing is in stores. For example, we buy our Pears from a distributor called Albert’s Organics. One pear costs us $1.00. We sell the pear for $1.25 because, seriously, people already complain to us about the price. If we are lucky and gas prices are low and they are available from Destiny Organics, a local distributor that sells mostly local organic products, we can get them for about $0.83. If that’s the case, we can sell the pear for $0.99.
Or take milk…we sell a regional milk called Sparkman’s that is really good stuff for the price point. No additives, no cancer causing agents, just great tasting local milk that won’t kill you by the time you’re 40. Each week we buy a case of nine half gallon bottles for $3.39 each that we turn around and sell for $4.25. Because we have to buy in such small quantities as a corner store, we get no price discounts that larger retailers receive for volume buying.
These extra costs are what makes food at smaller stores more expensive than foods at large supermarkets.
Imagine how many of those milks we would have to sell or how many of those pears just to make the payment on the phone bill which is $229 per month (because, you know, commercial lines cost more than residential). Oh, and the energy bill which is about $800 per month because of all the coolers and lights. Now imagine the payroll we have to meet, the business debt we have to pay each month, and all the other general costs of running a business like insurance, workers comp, water, IT, etcetera, etcetera.
I’m laying the groundwork for you to understand why people aren’t rushing to open neighborhood grocery stores. A single store has you working like an immigrant making below minimum wage just to pay the light bill. Of course, we pay our employees above minimum wage but us, personally…let’s just say that ain’t nobody other than your own family is lining up to manage a store from 7:30am until 8:30pm to make less than the cost of a gourmet burrito while getting the side eye from customers all day about the cost of non- cancer causing milk.
The reality is that, yes, it is hard work because we are trying to create a new model. It takes time, it takes finessing, and it takes neighborhood and city buy in to bring something new like this into fruition. Frankly, it also takes a tremendous lack of fear and patience to be in a place where people have been so traumatized that anger is generally the first emotion to surface during interactions that shift the environment.
Everyone in my life can attest to the fact that I have never cursed anyone out or laid hands on anyone, been in a fight or even really raised my voice in anger. And yet, since we have been running our store I have been threatened to be beaten and killed by a man twice my size on the sidewalk who screamed and swatted at me while other men happily videotaped with their phones only because I removed a very negative poster featuring guns and drugs he had plastered in front of our store; I get sexually harassed EVERY SINGLE time I walk to the mailbox (and sometimes in my own store!); we have to deal with addicts shooting up behind the store whose eyes betray none of the humanity or any of the light that we’re used to seeing from people; we have nearly had a man get killed because he was sleeping in the industrial garbage can that was about to be collected when he popped out; Rufus our dog has been kicked at on the street and threatened to be murdered; we have had bipolar people who have stopped taking medication decide to have no less than two mental breakdowns in front of our store which always somehow ends with someone threatening to get shot by police or others; we have had a robbery that resulted in both of the store computers being stolen; we have had neighbors blame us and interrupt our business to scream at us for the lawlessness on the streets outside (even though it was way worse before we arrived); we have had neighbors call law enforcement on us and curse us out–and call the men who came to do the work “white trash” – when we tried to improve the street by doing things like trimming the overgrown trees that were planted by the city that the city refuses to maintain, pumping flooding water, or removing a dead tree that was in danger of falling on somebody; we have had at least two people OD literally against our front door; we have had one man pass out at the traffic light outside and slam into our UPS driver in front of our store, and this is only a partial list of the craziness that surrounds us. Oy!
And we’re just trying to sell food!
These are every day occurrences when we also have to manage employees, manage the business, find produce, track down farmers, make sure vendors are paid, place orders, check the shelves for spoiled food, make coffee, pick up/order supplies, and ring people up.
The fact of the matter is, you can’t just sell food in a neighborhood like this. You have to be a counselor, diplomat, strategist, entrepreneur, peacekeeper, innovator, a politician and overall…an optimist.
All of the meditation and yoga I’ve had in my life has all led up to being able to build a business like this where I am and to not react to to what is going on around us but to respond in a way that appropriately creates boundaries and challenges people to bring their best selves to the forefront. It’s either that or you resign yourself to hopelessness, slap up the bulletproof glass, and sell all the liquor and drugs that keeps people dulled and useless and unable to see the beauty, light and potential that they have inside.
This is the reality of what it is to run a business in a neighborhood where the police are more happy to work for the parasitic criminals who keep people down than with the people who believe in the power of each individual to aspire to live their best life.
This is the reality of what smaller stores that don’t have city support like Whole Foods or Trader Joes have to deal with. This is the reality of operating a business in a place where the status quo of lawlessness and violence is reinforced by politicians and people alike. This is the reality where not one other grocer has opened south of I-20 in Atlanta since we moved here 3 years ago even though millions of dollars has been allocated to help get more food into low access area when people beg us nearly every week to expand.
We are lucky because we don’t get nearly the amount of negative stuff we could because lots of people vouch for us in the community and do support us here and ultimately, realize that we are truthful in saying that we still believe wholeheartedly, as Majora Carter states, “You don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one.” But there does come a time when even we may have to say we are physically tired of the insurmountable obstacles and lack of access to funding to address them.
And now the city boasts support for helping to add over 500 more units of housing to Castleberry Hill but this neighborhood doesn’t even have functioning sidewalks or any bus benches or transit shelters? Seriously?
This is the sidewalk intersection next to our store.