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Taking a mobile food grocery to the people

Memphis’ newest grocery store received a curbside ribbon-cutting ceremony with the grand opening of the Mobile Food Grocery at 1384 Jackson Ave. on Wednesday (Oct. 12). 

The rolling grocery is the latest effort to improve underserved communities in North Memphis by nonprofit the Works, Inc., and the Klondike/Smokey City Community Development Corporation.

The grocery accompanies a neighborhood-wide effort to revitalize the Klondike/Smokey City community, which includes the $72 million renovation of the old Northside High School into a modern mixed-use facility.

“We knew it would be decades before us, just doing what we’re doing … for a grocery store to (be put in) place. But we can’t say, ‘forget about you’ because a store won’t place here. Let’s see how we can serve you in different ways,” said Roshun Austin, president and CEO of the Works.

Roshun Austin sets the tone for the unveiling of the Mobile Food Grocery. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

Pulled by a rig, the retrofitted trailer was outfitted with many of the items needed to stock a kitchen. 

In addition to fresh and frozen vegetables, other staples such as meat, dairy and eggs also will be available. There will be shelves for canned and dry goods and non-food items such as soap or garbage bags. 

The trailer is equipped with a PA system, center aisle and a cashier’s station. A ramp allows those with accessibility issues to enter from the back. Orders will also be available for pickup, too.

While Klondike will be the initial stop for the Mobile Food Grocery, there are plans to hit underserved points across North Memphis, as well as Frayser and South City. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

“It is a little corner store on wheels,” said Austin.

The mobile grocery isn’t the Works, Inc.’s first stab at a “corner store,” but rather a franchise on wheels. It will feature many of the items available at The Grocer at South Memphis Farmers Market at Mississippi and South Parkway, which has been in operation since 2014. The nonprofit also operated a retrofitted MATA bus turned grocery known as the Green Machine. 

Those earlier efforts led to the Mobile Food Grocery. In 2019, Austin was contacted by the UK-based Guardian newspaper. While researching Memphis for a series on food insecurity in the U.S., her name kept popping up. 

“I really thought it was a joke, but her (the reporter’s) accent fit – it didn’t sound fake – and she wanted to talk about Memphis. They wanted to come and do their Divided Cities series in Memphis,” said Austin. 

A 13-minute mini-documentary resulted. It proclaimed Memphis the “Hunger Capital of the U.S.”

“Kroger corporate saw that documentary and they contacted me that fall and said, ‘We’d like for you to see something we’ve done in Louisville.’”

During that visit, Austin saw a model of the trailer. Kroger officials had seen a similar trailer in Milwaukee during an event at a food bank. Impressed, the grocer purchased one. 

“They had this trailer and a bus … and I was like, ‘Wow, why haven’t we done this in Memphis,’” said Austin. “I loved the idea and was wanting to partner with Kroger on that concept, because we were still having issues in other neighborhoods. 

“A corner-sized store in South Memphis was not going to fill that gap. And no matter how much we wish and want for a grocery store placed in distressed Memphis neighborhoods that are sparsely populated, they’re just not going to do it in their business model.”

This is because most large-scale grocers like Kroger are zoned and placed to fill the most need. Many of these underserved communities are sparsely populated, or even isolated, making stores financially unfeasible for operators.

At a cost of $200,000, the truck/trailer and retrofitting would have been out of reach for most nonprofits without benefactors. 

However, with the partnership with Kroger “taking longer than expected,” other sources of revenue were needed to make the rubber meet the road.

“It was taking a long time, so we partnered with a local philanthropic organization to purchase the mobile (grocery), which we did. We paid our first $100,000 down two years ago,” said Austin.

In addition to fresh and frozen vegetables, other staples such as meat, dairy and eggs also will be available at the Mobile Food Grocery. There will be shelves for canned and dry goods and non-food items such as soap or garbage bags. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

While Klondike will be the initial stop, there are plans to hit underserved points across North Memphis, as well as Frayser and South City. Most stops will last two to three hours, depending on the need. There could be several stops at a location per week.

Festivities ran from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday. Following brief remarks by Austin, visitors had a chance to win on-theme prizes such as utensils and cutting boards, as well as purchasing incentives.

The Tennessee Justice Bus also was parked nearby to provide legal advice from pro bono attorneys.

 

 

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