For years, underrepresented and underserved communities have faced food insecurity and limited access to nutritious and affordable food. The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated these inequalities, but it has also brought them to light, triggering new initiatives to tackle food deserts and further galvanizing changemakers already working on solutions.
Market Fresh Gourmet’s management team belongs to the latter camp. Several years before the pandemic, retail veterans Mario Minor, Lenny Knight, Joanne Jenkins and Arden Smith began developing their vision of bringing community “grocers” to underserved urban areas. In partnership with local governments, developers, churches and other stakeholders, the team will open its first two Market Fresh Gourmet locations this spring, in the Poppleton area of Baltimore and near Capitol Heights, Maryland. .
In addition to providing natural, organic and conventional nutritious foods, Market Fresh Gourmet is committed to community engagement and education. The company is even working with its partners on a food co-op initiative that will establish stations throughout the community where people can order and pick up food. As Minor says, “We are on a mission to create healthy families, healthy communities, and healthy legacies.”
NFM had the pleasure of speaking with Minor, CEO, and Knight, COO, to learn more about this impactful project.
How did the idea for Market Fresh Gourmet come about?
Mario Miner: He grew up from a spiritual place. I survived two heart attacks and leukemia. After my first heart attack, I realized that I had to change my lifestyle. And then, as you go through all of these health issues – and survive them – you come to realize that there is a greater purpose for your life. I truly understand that mine is to feed my people.
Then, in 2014, it all started to take shape. Mr. Knight and I have been lifelong friends, and he worked at another grocery store with Mrs. Jenkins and Mr. Smith. I had the opportunity to become a partner of this entity and through this I learned all aspects of this industry, met producers and learned who does what. The four of us really gelled together as a team.
This is also when I started to understand food deserts and health enterprise zones. I realized that I grew up in a food desert but didn’t know what it was called and there were so many people like me all over the country. It was great to put a name to this thing. Doing something positive to bring change – it became my passion – and the four of us started to develop the concept we now call Market Fresh Gourmet.
How does Market Fresh Gourmet differ from the competition?
Lenny Knight: The regions we are going to are food deserts. They have local stores that mainly serve foods high in salt, sugar and fat. But we firmly believe that given the choice, everyone would want to eat healthier, which is why we bring healthier options to underserved communities.
As a grocer, no matter the footprint of each store, we want to be a full-service grocery store with a meat counter, seafood counter, bakery, and beer and wine component, while serving food restaurant-quality, nutritionally balanced ready-to-eat meals. elements. We will differentiate ourselves by offering better products and introducing more natural and organic products that people wouldn’t otherwise get at a convenience store. We will offer diverse food options to people – approximately 65% natural and organic products, 35% conventional products – and varied prices.
In what ways will you engage with and educate the community?
MM: Cooking classes are important. They will cover nutrition, cooking for adults, cooking for kids, so many things. Many people have a habit of taking meals out of the freezer or cupboard, so they may not know what an artichoke is or what Bok choy is. We will help them understand the health benefits of these foods and how to cook them; we will show them how to use different herbs and spices, instead of just salt.
We will also work in partnership with health insurance organizations to do screenings. People can access these services in pharmacies, but you have to go a little further. You have to go to a community and take the initiative to take blood pressure measurements and do health checks. And then, if a person has a problem, show him what it is and how to deal with it. Or if they don’t, show them how to stay healthy.
What challenges have you faced building stores during a global pandemic?
LK: Just as we were kicking off with the business, COVID hit, so we faced the same challenges as everyone else – with subcontractors, materials, and supply chain delays. This made it difficult to continue without slowdowns or stoppages, but our team did a good job of meeting the challenges and getting creative to move the project forward.
Also, I don’t think society recognized the important role that grocery stores play in communities, but it spread when COVID hit. Suddenly, there was a lot of food insecurity, especially among people who had never had problems with food insecurity before.
And you worked to solve this problem, even before the opening of your stores?
LK: Yes, we have galvanized some of our vendors and, collectively with the county, have organized food drives for the community.
MM: We fed about 450 people every two weeks. There was an emotional aspect to it – you felt it in your heart when you were feeding people. COVID has changed a paradigm. The people in the queues looked like “someone else”, but suddenly they looked like a lot of us, driving the same cars and living in the same communities. And many of us who thought we would never have to wait in line for food had to humble ourselves to do so. So the psychological aspect of it was tough, but it was ultimately a feel-good experience that helped build community.
Looks like there was a silver lining in there.
MM: One success that has come out of COVID is that several issues that have plagued our communities for a long time have now come under the microscope. It helped us focus on things that we had been trying to raise red flags for a long time. It will take people and organizations at all levels to make a difference, and now resources are being put in place to target these issues.
How did you get Market Fresh Gourmet known?
MM: Oh my God, we’ve done so much. We did general marketing and social media, sponsored 5K races in and around stores, held Halloween parties and community barbecues. Our [Capitol Heights] store is in a mixed-use building with a few hundred residents, so we held several events there. Instead of the big box mentality of opening a store and saying, “Here’s what you’re going to buy and eat”, we invited people to eat with their fingers and asked them what they wanted and what their community grocer needed to be. We put together this report to let them know that if we do all this pre-opening, just imagine the community partner we will be once we open.
Are people excited about the opening of stores?
MM: There is enormous excitement. We have a lot of support at all levels. You can never underestimate the community involvement aspect of doing what we do. Being a black male from a black community, like most of our employees and customers, I really understand this market. For many people like us, there are good reasons to have their guards up. So understanding what the issues are, meeting people where they are, and being a resource to help alleviate those pain points, that’s really what we do. We have earned the trust of every community we have been involved with so far and as a result there is an overwhelming electricity in the air to receive us.
LK: We want the community to feel a real sense of belonging. Without it, there is a disconnect. Sometimes operators step in, and if there’s no real connection, the voters who are supposed to support the store don’t feel like real partners. By giving them a sense of belonging, they will want this store to succeed as much as we do.
What are your plans for your workforce?
LK: We want to continue to be a beacon of hope. A lot of people start in grocery as a part-time job, but we have a platform to move people from part-time work to management. People took groceries for granted before the pandemic, but great careers can be had in this industry.
MM: When we were doing food distributions, people started seeing grocers in a different light. Before, many people never looked twice at the person putting the cans on the shelf. We’ve involved them in the physical aspects of grocery work – packing boxes, lifting boxes from trucks – and through this laborious experience they can now relate to themselves. Now they see grocery as an industry to respect.
Will there be more locations in the future?
MM: Oh yes, we have a vision and a plan to open more stores. For now, it’s five by 2025, but who knows? We could be five plus five by 2025. But it’s important to grow smarter and keep control over how fast we grow.
LK: We currently have three rental stores. We are targeted where we believe stores can succeed from a business perspective, but we also ensure that each area aligns with our vision and mission.