Everyone is welcome at Good Grocer, a new kind of food marketplace

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The small chartreuse and white building on the corner of East Lake Street and Stevens Avenue might be easy to miss, but what goes on inside might well become a model for solving the problem of fresh produce and healthier foods in lower income neighborhoods. The Good Grocer, a new kind of neighborhood co-op that opened June 15, is already getting healthy and affordable food to people in the area.

Once, people living nearby in the Lyndale and Whittier neighborhoods had easy access to good and affordable food. But, after Sullivan’s SuperValu, a large grocery store with a 28-year history of serving the community closed two years ago, residents found themselves with few options. In an area where many don’t have much money to spend or reliable transportation to travel miles to buy groceries, the neighborhood had no access to a quality grocery store. That’s when Kurt Vickman stepped in, looking for a solution.

Vickman, who for 14 years served as head pastor at The Upper Room, a local activist church, resigned his preaching position to devote full time to addressing food insecurity and, along with members of his church, opened a food shelf. But, he found problems.

“People who go to food shelves get 10 to 20 percent of their food from the shelves, but for the rest of their groceries, they have to pay full price. For a long time I was hearing about families who, at the end of the month, didn’t have enough food to eat,” he said.

He began to notice that many who came to food shelves would try to offer small amounts of money in exchange for the free food. “It was as if they were saying to us, ‘No, we’re not helpless.’”

But, there were rules at food shelves that Vickman couldn’t break. “We used to get food from a food bank. But, we had to sign a contract that we couldn’t have people work or have paying members, and that you had to give away the food for free.”

Vickman thought there might be a better way. “We had to redefine how to distribute food. We decided to create a space that was somewhere between a food shelf and a full-priced retail grocer,” he said.

Vickman converted the charity food shelf into a non-profit full service food store, calling it the Good Grocer and offering customers a chance to buy groceries at a discount in exchange for volunteer work. “We used business practices not to make a profit,” Vickman said, “but to give access to people who might otherwise not have access to healthy and affordable food.”

While you don’t have to be a member to shop there, (the general public is encouraged to come inside), members get a considerable discount on everything in the store. “We have more than 300 active members already,” said Services Coordinator Janeth Sanchez. “It’s a five-minute application and members need to do two and a half hours of volunteer work a month. For that, they get a 25 percent discount over the regular prices. Each item has two prices, one for members and one for everyone else.”

Good Grocer peppers

For Vickman, it’s about dignity as much as it is affordable food. “When people are poor, others don’t look at them as being able to contribute. But, everyone has something to contribute. Here they can feel proud instead of walking into a place [a charity food shelf] with their heads down.”

He recruited corporate supporters, including Ultra Creative, a local design firm that took the dingy building and provided what Vickman says was probably $50,000 of design work, including a logo. “I was in Jerry’s Foods in Edina and thought that lower income people should be able to shop in a clean, brightly lit and well-stocked place, too.”

Many members spend their volunteer their hours stocking shelves or doing inventory. Others have needed expertise – a refrigeration expert if a cooler breaks down, a window washer and professional cleaners. Corporate sponsors have donated amounts from $15,000 to $200,000. SuperValu and The Fish Guys, who usually service higher-end customers, agreed to distribute to the Good Grocer. “That was the critical piece,” Vickman said.

good grocer produce

The store has long shelves of brightly colored, fresh vegetables. “We take a lot of pride in having fresh and healthy produce,” said Sanchez. The store carries regular and organic eggs ($3.52 for members, $4.69 for non-members) and a choice of organic pastas. You can pick up tofu or fancy ice cream.

“We have a very diverse membership – people from Mexico, Central and South America and we have a growing Somali base,” she said, “so we have Mexican and Middle Eastern sections.” The coolers are filled with fresh and smoked meats and the frozen food sections carry healthier frozen dinners and breakfasts as well as frozen pizzas.

“We are really trying to bring sustainable good foods to people who shop here. We’ll be increasing the organic food choices as people get familiar with it. And, we’re always looking for feedback from customers as to what they want us to carry,” she said.

There’s also a community element. Professional cake bakers make personalized birthday cakes for kids under 18-years at a cost of only $3, with a party room available for birthday parties. And on Saturdays, a member runs the Kid’s Club in the party room, so parents can drop off their kids while they work, shop or volunteer.

Good Grocer storefrontVickman said that his heart is connected to the project. He has plans for the marketplace’s future, which includes building a community café area. The word ‘good’ in Good Grocer is good prices, a good assortment of good food but especially a good group of people, said Vickman. He hopes that Good Grocer will become a motivating force as well. “We want a gathering place where people can come in and get on line, with coffee for ten cents a cup. We want a place, not just for members, but for walk-in customers from the neighborhood and elsewhere – not just lower income people, but all people. We want to provide dignity where people are contributors. We want to offer, not a hand out but a hand up.”

The Good Grocer is located at 122 E. Lake St. in Minneapolis. It is open from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m.

26 thoughts on “Everyone is welcome at Good Grocer, a new kind of food marketplace

  1. I just heard about this via FB friends, and I’m quite excited! There’s a lot of amazing community things happening in South Minneapolis these days, and I’m very happy. Planning on visiting Good Grocer this weekend or next.

  2. The article calls this a co-op. A co-op is a legal entity with a very clear xefinition. With a co-op, members actually own the store and make decisions on how it’s run. This does have features similar to a co-op (membership, volunteering, discounts) I don’t think it’s a co-op.

    Correct me please, if I’m wrong.

    Otherwise nice article!

    • The original (13 or more) food coops in the Twin Cities were not coops in the legal-entity sense. We used the term to describe what we intended to do (“good food, cheap!”) not for the purpose of defining ownership. This store, in fact, sounds as though it is a lot closer to the original idea (worker/volunteer based rather than member/owner based) than the current legal-entity coops, which are by-and-large not an affordable place to shop for a great many people.

      • I agree. I remember some of the original co-ops. I wasn’t living in the Twin Cities, but in D.C. and in Oregon. I also remember that a lot of them were driven by diet ideology. This place carries organic foods, but also frozen dinners, chips, pizza and (gasp!) meat, something you’d never see in any of the old-school original co-ops. Affordable, too. The best of both worlds.

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  4. New model grocery store actually not so new of an idea! This is a great alternative to Seward’s new Friendship Store in south Minneapolis. Good Grocer seems like a store that is actually (figuratively) owned by the community rather than just members who can afford $80. Can’t wait to shop there. And I live two blocks away from the new Friendship Store.

    • Seward Co-op offers a needs based membership for $15 as well as a 10% discount every time you shop. I became a member in the last year when I learned about it. Although clearly their customer base isn’t low income I do enjoy shopping there for some things.

      I keep hearing about Good Grocer time to make a visit ~

      • Thanks! The TC Daily Planet is no longer supporting places like this or publishing food articles, but spread the word. The Good Grocer is a great place and needs community support. Thanks!

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  10. This is hardly new. (Though to be charitable the guy who started it might be young enough to not know about working coops.) The coop I belonged to in West Phillymuch earlier had working members. Seward, when I first belonged in the late 1970s, had working members. I was sad when they stopped having working memberships because I liked cutting and weighing cheese.

    • Most of the early co-ops required membership to buy anything. At Good Grocer, if you are a volunteer member you get a discount. But, anyone can shop there. Early co-ops were mostly for what was then called ‘health foods.’ This is more like a regular grocery store.

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  15. I drove by and wondered what the Good Grocer was. Thanks to this story I know. I wonder if the exisitng food coops should re-consider volunteer labor.

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