Just as remarkable as the range of food is the fact that the store exists at all. “For three decades, we pushed and cried and prayed for a supermarket,” says Lucinda Hudson, longtime president of the Parkside neighborhood association. “We’re a distressed area with violence, drugs, and poor quality of life. No businesses would open here.”
Then, fourth-generation grocer Jeff Brown, 46, stepped up. “In our suburban stores,” he says, “our mission is: ‘Bring joy to the lives of the people we serve.’ I thought, Why couldn’t that work for the inner city?”
Turns out it could—but it took a lot of hard work. In 2003, Brown helped found the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI), a public-private partnership that helps cover the higher costs of training and security at markets in underserved areas. But he knew that success would depend on his ability to meet the neighborhood’s needs.
“We asked for a clean store that stocks our ethnic foods,” Hudson recalls. “And we asked that he hire locally.” The first part was easy, but the second proved tougher. “Many people in the area had never worked,” Brown says. “They weren’t used to being treated with respect or having anyone care about them.”
Brown invested $1 million in a 12-week training program; many who needed the most help are now among the store’s best employees. “We’ve proved that everyone deserves a second chance,” he says.
‘The job changed my life,” says Tyrone Page, 25, who had been in trouble with the law for years before Brown hired him. “He wants you to succeed, and he makes you want to do well.” Page now has a car and attends the Community College of Philadelphia while working part-time at the Parkside store. Brown is also developing a program to send high-potential employees to four-year schools to prepare them to be managers.
Brown has now opened five stores in some of Philadelphia’s most troubled neighborhoods, and he says they’re as profitable as his suburban markets. In March, he testified before Congress after President Obama earmarked $400 million to build supermarkets and improve access to healthy food in underserved areas. Nearly 24 million Americans live in such “food deserts,” a fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says may contribute to obesity and illness in the U.S.
Back in Philadelphia, Brown can see how his business is changing lives. “If I have 250 employees in one store, that’s 250 people in the neighborhood with jobs,” he says. “If you can improve a community’s well-being, there’s joy in that.”
By all accounts, that’s exactly what he has done. “The community is a different place now,” Hudson observes. “Before, you didn’t see anyone. Now everyone is out walking to the store. It’s our hub. And as a neighborhood, we’re getting healthier.”
Jeff Brown knows that what’s good for his customers is good for business. Here are three of his most popular services.
1. Several times a year, Brown offers $100 food cards in exchange for guns turned in to the local police, no questions asked. In the last two years, more than 5000 weapons have been pulled off the streets.
2. At the store’s financial department, shoppers can pay bills, buy money orders, and wire funds.
3. An in-store pharmacy provides free antibiotics and diabetes medicine, as well as 90-day supplies of many generic drugs for $10.