The Boxcar Grocer is a new addition to the Castleberry Hill section of Atlanta. Photo credit: Candace Y.A. Montague
By Candace Y.A. Montague via thegrio.com
Nestled in the Castleberry Hill section of Atlanta is a quaint neighborhood divided between yesteryear and today. Among the new additions to the area is a bright, modern corner store that sells all-natural produce and products for residents who seek organic alternatives. It’s called The Boxcar Grocer and on Peters Street SW, it is the only food store available.
Co-owners Alison and Alphonso Cross migrated from San Francisco to the Atlanta area to open this food store in a building owned by their father. The brother and sister team felt that fresh food was important enough to bring to the neighborhood and sacrificed almost everything to make it happen. The question was whether or not there was enough of a demand for fresh food options to sustain their business in an area that is making slow progress towards revitalization. The Crosses believed so, and they found a way to use local farmers to keep the business afloat.Alison and Alphonso Cross knew they wanted to open a food store in a vacant building, but couldn’t find a grocer that was willing to do it. The area was deemed to have no value and investors thought that black communities wouldn’t support such a store. The Crosses thought differently.
“They kept coming at us with more barbershops and beauty salons,” said Alison Cross in an interview. “The community doesn’t need another barbershop. So we decided if we are going to move across the country to make a grocery store it’s going to be a killer kind of store. It’s going to be something that can be replicated in other communities.”
Their brainstorming led to The Boxcar Grocer, a convenience store branded with the African-American consumer in mind. The next step was to find black farmers who would offer the organic produce that they wanted to sell. However, the technological divide made it difficult to make connections with them because many of them are not on the Internet.
Alison Cross described the business community in Atlanta as insular and said they lacked the appropriate contacts needed to make deals. Eventually, they made a few connections and the store opened in November 2011.
Is there a market for a black-owned convenience store?
In many African-American communities across the country, corner and convenience stores outnumber full-service grocery stores, and black-owned businesses struggle for support from the very same community.
According to Maggie Anderson, author of Our Black Year, black businesses only get two percent of the one trillion dollars of African-American buying power. In the beginning of 2000, there were 19 black-owned grocery stores in the United States.
By 2011, the Kellogg Business School conducted a survey and found evidence of only three black-owned grocery stores. It is a struggle to attain and keep black dollars coming into black-owned stores especially without a national brand and with competition from larger retailers.
Dr. Juliet E.K Walker, founder and director of the Center of Black Business History, Entrepreneurship, and Technology at The University of Texas at Austin states that food businesses that cater to a particular niche seem to have more success than the ones that are African-American owned.
“Simply put, small food enterprises are usually not successful,” Walker said, “although it seems that when these stores are operated by immigrants who supply food specific to an immigrant culture, they survive.”
Alison and Alphonso Cross aimed high when they established The Boxcar Grocer. They sell organic products to a community that is typically overridden with fast food restaurants. Alison Cross said that marketing is a key factor in sales.
“I had a guy come in here with a gold grill, pants hanging down his legs asking for kale,” she said. “We’ve sold him that once before and he likes it. It’s beautiful. No one’s marketing kale to him.”
She continued: “Our competition is not Whole Foods because they’re not in the black community. Our competition is KFC and Popeye’s and Church’s Chicken. We need to market healthy food more to our community the way that Popeyes does their chicken.”
Food access leads to prime health
From a health standpoint, The Boxcar Grocer is a critical solution to the food access crisis in the African-American community. Fresh food options and learning to cook with better ingredients can stave off obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Lawrence Williams, President of the United States Healthful Food Council, states that having neighborhood grocers can lead to better eating.
“Unfortunately, the disappearance of neighborhood markets in many communities has left consumers to base their decisions almost solely on price, leaving many to rely on frozen and processed foods, as well as fast food restaurants, which have been major contributors to the dramatic rise in obesity and diabetes over the past few decades,” said Williams.
“Re-introducing a grocery or convenience store with fresh produce and healthier products on the shelves will not only make such products more convenient and accessible to local consumers, but will also have the affect of making the shopper better informed, resulting in better eaters.”
The Boxcar Grocer has individual stations where local vendors can come in and demonstrate how to use the organic products in recipes and sell prepared foods.
Alison Cross added, “Health is not about just getting a carrot into someone’s hand. Health is about your entire life. When you come here, you should know that it’s safe to eat. We are here for your health.”
Candace Y.A. Montague is a health advocate and freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She is the DC HIV/AIDS Examiner for Examiner.com. Candace is also a contributor to The Body.com, The Black AIDS Weekly, and East of the River Magazine, a publication of Capital Community News. Writing is her activism.