Community Grocers Ferrence and Gjurgevich turned a class project into a business with a mission.

The shelves in the tiny Delridge grocery are stacked high with all of the basics—cheese, eggs, bread, coffee—plus some healthy extras like quinoa, Greek yogurt, polenta, and organic fruits and vegetables. “Tiny” might be an understatement. The store is housed in a remodeled shipping container a mere 160 feet square. Only one or two people can shop at the same time without clobbering each other with cereal boxes. This food-packed cubby is the prototype for a Seattle startup called Stockbox Grocers, founded last fall by Carrie Ferrence and Jacqueline Gjurgevich. A sign out front summed up their mission: “Good food where you live.”

This August, Stockbox expects to open its first permanent store in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood, with another shop, likely in West Seattle, opening in late 2012 or early 2013. The founders hope to open six stores around town by the end of 2013 and roll into other markets over the next five years. Their goal is to bring fixings for good meals to neighborhoods where it’s easier to buy junk food, soda, and a lottery ticket at the mini-mart.

They’re called food deserts. And Seattle has plenty of them.

Defined as geographic areas with low access to healthy foods, food deserts exist in urban and rural areas around the country, and they’re more common in large, diverse cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles. According to a 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, some 23.5 million Americans live more than a mile from a supermarket and have limited access
to a vehicle or public transit. And often those scarce-for-groceries neighborhoods have too little demand to support a major store. Although some recent studies have shown that there may not be a direct link between a neighborhood’s lack of healthy grocery stores and rising obesity numbers, limited access to healthy foods often means people are forced to shop at gas station mini-marts or dine on fast food. Food researchers in Seattle say several areas of the city face such challenges, namely Delridge, South Park, and elsewhere in south Seattle. One solution is to bring the food to the people—and to make stores small. Some big grocery chains have started adopting a petite urban model. British grocery company Tesco has opened neighborhood markets in the U.S. called Fresh and Easy, and even Wal-Mart plans to open hundreds of smaller, more localized Wal-Mart Express stores. Plus, companies like Amazon and Safeway are expanding their grocery delivery services. 

In Seattle, there’s Carrie Ferrence and Jacqueline Gjurgevich. Both women attended the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, a business school focused on environmental and social sustainability. In an MBA marketing class two years ago, they were given the assignment to dream up a business that responded to a need in the community. Considering their backgrounds, it’s nowonder they set out to bring food back to where people lived. 

Gjurgevich, who’s 32, grew up in Southern California. Her mother worked as a grocery clerk and her father runs a franchise for Carl’s Jr. After managing events for Marriott hotels in Washington, DC, for five years, she moved to Seattle and got a taste of the local food scene. Gjurgevich says it got her thinking that she wanted to shop closer to home and put an emphasis on knowing where her food came from.

Ferrence, for her part, is 34 and recently quit her job as the sustainability coordinator for the Seattle school district. She was raised in rural Pennsylvania, where her dad, as a kid, worked in a corner grocery store owned by her grandfather. “What stands out to me about my grandfather’s store, and why I’ve always wanted to start a community business, is there was always a group of farmers or people talking at the store,” Ferrence says. “It was a community center.”

The two grad students considered a food truck, but ultimately hit on the idea of using old shipping containers and dropping them in places people could walk to. “When we were brainstorming, we thought, What if we went really small?” Ferrence says. “We realized we could get into more spaces, we could be more nimble, we could reduce our costs.” Ferrence and Gjurgevich dubbed their company Stockbox Grocers. 

Financing their startup was—and still is—a challenge. They won seed money from a University of Washington business competition, raised over $20,000 on kickstarter.com, and received a grant from Healthy Foods Here, a collaborative effort between King County and the City of Seattle. 

 

Grocery Store in a Box A healthy alternative to the mini-mart.

The prototype opened last fall for a two-month trial in the parking lot of Delridge’s Westhaven apartment complex. Orange juice was popular, as were pasta, tortillas, eggs, and during a freak warm spell, popsicles. There were setbacks—one supplier delivered nearly expired eggs two weeks in a row, and cleaning supplies like dish soap and paper towels didn’t sell as expected. “Our biggest challenge, since we’re such a small store, is drilling down the product mix,” says Gjurgevich. “What are people going to buy? What are they going to come into our store looking for?”

The first week they saw about 20 to 35 customers a day. One regular was Lori Hutchins, who’s 45 and suffers from arthritis. Her apartment is a five-minute walk from the tavern where she works, and she doesn’t own a car. Her closest options for food are an AmPm and a Shell station mini-mart. “To get to a real grocery store,” said Hutchins, “it’s a 20-minute wait for the bus, then a walk down the hill, then you lug the groceries back up the hill, wait for the bus. It takes a good hour and a half to go shopping.”

Ferrence sat on a stool, armed with an iPad to ring up purchases. A chalkboard advertised newly stocked items: Bartlett pears, Clif bars, whipping cream, broccoli. Another board asked, “What do you want us to stock?” Customers had written in: sunflower seeds, mozzarella cheese, nectarines, and fruit punch. A freezer was filled with whole grain waffles, pints of Ben and Jerry’s, and frozen chicken breasts.

Over the course of the afternoon, a tired-looking man came in for a bag of ground coffee, a woman bought some canned beans for a casserole, and a young boy dropped by after school for a popsicle. One shopper came in looking for enchilada sauce, which wasn’t in stock, but Gjurgevich looked up a recipe and showed him how to make it from scratch using ingredients they did have. 

When the first permanent small-box store opens this month, Ferrence and Gjurgevich plan to hire neighborhood residents to manage the store. “It elevates the sense of this being your neighborhood, mom-and-pop store, but with a cool twist on it,” says Gjurgevich. 

Although the business model is based on using shipping containers, the first shop will be in a 600-square-foot, brick-and-mortar storefront, because that’s what worked for the South Park neighborhood. “We tried to negotiate on a parking lot in a different area in South Park, but were unsuccessful,” says Ferrence. “This space was affordable, easy to work with, and similar in shape and size to a shipping container.”

They have other ideas, too. They’ve written up recipe cards (Polenta in Tomato Sauce, Quinoa Salad, and Annie’s Mac and Cheese Casserole), and eventually they’d like to offer cooking demonstrations, ready-to-eat meals, preboxed cook-at-home dinner kits, and delivery service. 

Ferrence and Gjurgevich have spent the last few months applying for bank loans, attending food conferences, and meeting with potential investors. The money is trickling in. 

At a Delridge community meeting last November, someone asked Ferrence if the prototype store was commercially viable. She shrugged and said, “No, but we didn’t expect it to be in just two months.” But, she added, they learned that it could be. Most importantly, Ferrence said, Stockbox appeared to be welcomed by the community. And why wouldn’t it? Imagine living in a neighborhood with no fresh produce nearby and then suddenly a miniature store filled with wholesome items appears. It’s almost like bringing a lake full of clean drinking water to a barren desert.

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