I was lucky to have the chance to talk with Alison Cross, co-founder of Boxcar Grocer last week. Located in Atlanta, Georgia, the store partners with local farmers and producers to offer high-quality products in a neighborhood with few food stores. She and her brother Alphonzo Cross make an inspiring team, driven by their desire to make an impact and how much they care about their community. Read the text of my conversation with her, below, and check out Boxcar Grocer’s website for more information.
A.F. : You’ve described the store as a convenience market—could you briefly explain what that means? What makes this business model beneficial to the community?
A.C. : When my brother and I came up with this, we very much thought of a convenience store that sells healthy food. There’s not a problem with healthy food, obviously, but people have preconceived notions about what a convenience store is. A lot of that is environmental, a lot of it is product-based, and every time people would walk into our store, they would literally tell us, “You are not a convenience store.” And we’d ask people, you know, “Why are you feeling that?” And they’d say, “Well, this is nice business here, products are good products, there’s healthy food, high-quality food,” just the antithesis of what people think about when they walk into a convenience store, which is overly-processed food, the cheapest ingredients–the lowest common denominator in terms of where food comes from. And we’ve changed that model. We work with local farms. We try to get Georgia-grown produce, and if possible, Atlanta-grown produce. We work with local urban farms as well as with organic distributors. A convenience market is our answer to what we think the convenience store of the future should look like. It should empower communities; it should strengthen communities; it shouldn’t contribute to declining health and contribute to people’s low expectations of what we have in our community.
A.F. : When you talk about your customers’ reactions to the store, I’m curious– what kind of support have you received from the community since you opened?
A.C. : People have been really excited to see us here, and we were surprised–there’s always gonna be a stigma around healthy food. We were surprised by the number of people who came asking us about it. When we opened up, we did a soft launch. We did not tell anybody about it; we had a Facebook page we’d put up, and we’d been Tweeting about it a little bit. We were surprised that 700 people showed up for our grand opening. And on our very first day, when we hadn’t told anyone about it, we didn’t make any announcements, it just got out that we were opening up a store here. We hadn’t done a formal press conference or anything like that, and people were lining up at the door before that even happened. And that just goes to show how much demand there is, first off, just for food, because there’s really nothing on this side of town. But the area is probably 92 percent black, very mixed income, a lot of students. So, we’ve been very well received. This is the model prototype store, and we’re trying to get everything right here to open up more.
A.F. : Do you think you’ll open up more in Atlanta?
A.C. : We really have created a format, a model, for a number of stores, and our goal is to have at least four stores by 2015. We hope to have stores in 20 different cities by 2020, and we’ve identified the top cities. New York is definitely one of them, Philadelphia, Atlanta…
A.F. : Great to hear for a Philadelphian. Now I have a question about the work itself: What is it like working with your brother on a regular basis? Any sibling rivalries?
A.C. : It’s actually been really good. We also have a really good relationship, and we’ve grown up like twins: we’re just a year apart. But we also have a really strong understanding that my brother’s strengths and my strengths are very different. And that has been huge. My brother’s always been extroverted, and there’s such different careers that we had before. I had a degree in architecture, and I worked in philanthropy, and I worked in an architecture firm. And we both worked in advertising, or aspects of it, but we really lean on each other. The things that he’s really good at are not my strong points, so we can really pick and choose what we wanna do based off strengths. So we’ve watched each other grow, as it’s hard not to develop parts of yourself that you really didn’t get to work on before being you’re in business, because when you’re in business you use your energy, your brains, your everything. The people who are around you become part of your business. But it’s been a really good time. I’ve always respected and admired my brother, and I’m really happy that now we’re able to do this for each other, and we’re able to build something from the ground up.
A.F. : Last question. Do you have a favorite item that is on sale in Boxcar Grocer?
A.C. : Me personally, and it probably doesn’t sound healthy, but we have these pizelles that this guy makes locally. They’re these waffles cookies and you can buy them packaged, but this guy makes them fresh here in Atlanta. They are so amazing.
Be sure to check out the great work Alison and Alphonzo are doing in Atlanta at Boxcar Grocer.
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