by Katie Delp
In 2015, FCS launched Carver Neighborhood Market, a “right-sized” retail grocery store in our target community of Historic South Atlanta. It was a neighborhood that had been routinely overlooked by traditional grocery chains and seen as too challenging to make a profit.
This scenario happens over and over again in distressed communities. Needed services and goods are not available to a population that often already has transportation limitations. It’s the perfect opportunity for innovative nonprofits to step into the gap and facilitate access for residents. Flourishing communities need groceries, and it was an industry we decided to learn and implement in our neighborhood.
The first year and a half has been a wild ride and has surprised us with small and large successes. Carver Market has also received a lot of attention - locally and even nationally. This exposure has brought others to FCS, asking how they, too, can start a market.
While we are thrilled to see more people invested in the idea of right-sized retail and urban markets, we also recognize that Carver Market did not emerge as an isolated experiment. It was a needed program implemented as part of a broader, long-term strategic community development effort.
Much of the success of Carver Market can be attributed to activities that happened before the first gallon of milk was ever scanned. For others considering how to launch a grocery store, or really any innovative solution to urban challenges, I encourage you to consider these steps as laying the groundwork for the specifics of your amazing projects.
#1 - Consider your model
If your organization has been involved in the community, but all your programs rely on a giveaway model, these areas may be a good place to start. After years of handing out backpacks, canned goods, and used clothes, it may be startling for the neighborhood if you suddenly open a store where everything is priced at or around market norms.
First, consider how you might shift your current programs to include more opportunities for mutual exchange. You might launch a Christmas Store with dignity or facilitate a food co-op instead of a food pantry.
This transition will also help your creative juices to start flowing around larger initiatives - like a grocery store - that will move fully away from donated items and start working with smaller distributors and local farmers.
#2 - Build Trust
FCS had been working in South Atlanta for 15 years before opening Carver Market. A significant number of our staff team have lived in the community for many years as well. Neighbors recognized FCS and knew the people behind Carver Market. Our lived experience in the neighborhood all these years had been building trust and got more community buy-in from the start.
Our coffee shop, Community Grounds, had been in the neighborhood - and sharing space with where the grocery would eventually be - for years. It was a known gathering spot in the community, and neighbors were comfortable in the space This relational equity and trust invited neighbors to start asking us, “What about a grocery store?”
#3 - Recognize why others aren’t doing it
There’s a reason traditional grocers by-pass our community. And one glaring issue was South Atlanta’s lack of density. Nine years ago, almost 30% of our neighborhood was vacant. We also have more single-family homes, which house less people than row houses or apartment complexes.
To launch a project without acknowledging and preparing for the real challenges would make it difficult to sustain. The momentum behind Carver Market has also been fueled by the housing work we’d been doing for years with Charis Community Housing. As we rehabbed houses and recruited new neighbors, we were also building a customer base for the grocery.
We need creative solutions to real problems plaguing struggling communities. But these efforts will be strongest when bolstered by an integrated, strategic plan that moves communities away from entitlement programs, builds trusts, and addresses challenges head-on with thoughtful planning and creativity.
If you’re interested in learning more about our program models and their implementation, consider joining us at an upcoming Open House.