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Retail Therapy: How One Man Is Using Bodegas to Transform 'Food Deserts'

Urbane Development works to bring fresh produce and other healthy foods to small stores in underserved communities like Detroit, Newark, and South Philadelphia.

James Johnson Piett digs retail, specifically food retail. Focusing on things like "operationalizing how consumers move through a store," as he puts it, might seem prohibitively geeky for most. But Piett makes it seem very cool.  

I met Piett in Turin, Italy at the Slow Food convention last week. Explaining his work to a roomful of food advocates, he said, "You know in that movie, Pulp Fiction, how there's this character named The Wolf who fixes things? That's who I am. I'm a fixer for grocery stores. I design, build, attract financing, a full suite of services to help them move from point A to point B."  

Piett's company, Urbane Development, works to bring fresh produce and other healthy foods to small stores in underserved communities like Detroit, Newark, and South Philadelphia. He uses the term "bodegas" to describe the kind of integrated stores he aims to create. Bodegas tend to have more meaningful relationships with their customers, he says, and one of his priorities while traveling in Europe this month is to study what makes European bodegas successful, in hopes of importing applicable models to the U.S.  

"In the U.S., bodega owners that have good relationships with their customers will sometimes tape pictures of their customers' kids to the plexiglass by the cash register. In Europe, this kind of relationship translates into purveyors saving the last of the season's peaches for their customers who haven't yet made jam," Piett says.  
Grocers that are connected with their clients are more likely to be invested in their health, and poor diet has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, and other complications of obesity.

In 2008 the American Journal of Epidemiology reported that people with no supermarket near their homes were up to 46 percent less likely to eat a healthy diet than those with more shopping options. Urbane Development contracts with cities, states, municipalities, public health agencies and developers to bring healthy food into neighborhood stores that specialize in the likes of chips, soft drinks, and candy. Such stores are often the only options for miles, and have become the focus of public health advocates.  

But in a business with such low profit margins, convincing small grocers to risk stocking perishable produce with no guarantee that customers will buy it is often a losing proposition-especially when proven sellers like Twinkies, cigarettes and lottery tickets don't spoil. Piett's business offers technical assistance for product sourcing, merchandising and handling, as well as financial support programs like lines of credit and grants that provide grocers with the operating capital they need to dabble in risky, healthy offerings.   

"It's easier to finance hard costs, like construction and equipment, rather than perishable inventory or even insurance," Piett says. "Cash flow is king."  

His first client store, in Philadelphia, added 1,000 square feet to its space, and still managed to lower its power bills by 40 percent thanks to strategic use of soy-based insulation, recycled sheet rock, low-e windows, and energy-efficient refrigeration and lights.  

Each project is unique, and so are the different regions the client stores inhabit. Urban Detroit, Piett says, is not currently home to a single chain supermarket. The only grocers willing to take a chance on the ailing city are independent operators, and there are hundreds of such neighborhood stores. Many are owned by Chaldeans, a group of Iraqi Christians that migrated here en masse in the early 1900s.  
"Chaldean store owners and black customers don't always play well together," Piett says wryly. "But at the same time they need each other." Changes to retail space, he says, involves a high degree of integration and coordination. "It's always in totality. If I'm going to change a corner store, I have to deal with the owner, the space, the customers, the suppliers, public health agencies, the occasional real estate developer and local economic development nonprofit, and city, state, or municipal governments."  

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