BY STEPHANIE FOX
For Kurt Vickman, making sure that everyone has enough food to eat has been a lifelong mission. Once the head pastor of The Upper Room, an activist church, Vickman ran a food shelf in the church basement. He discovered that many people would ask to pay small amounts of money in exchange for their food. It was a way, Vickman said, for people facing hard times to keep their dignity.
But the rules for food banks would not allow it. His church had been required to sign a contract promising that they would not charge or exchange work for food. Vickman decided then that there had to be a better way.
The Good Grocer opened six years ago in the Whittier neighborhood on Lake Street, Vickman’s innovative solution to the problem. It was a grocery store that gave customers a chance to trade a few hours of work at the store for a large discount. But when the 35W project forced the demolition of the building, Vickman focused on creating a new Good Grocer that would serve even more people, giving them a way to contribute to the cause while allowing them to purchase quality, affordable food.
The store’s new home on Eat Street, at the corner of 26th and Nicollet and just five blocks from his old location, opened in late January. It’s bright and sunny and at about 9,000 square feet, twice the size of the Lake Street store. And, while the store may be new and improved, the business model is the same—it offers high quality foods for not too much money with a volunteer discount option for those who want it.
Right now, 50 percent of the food sold at Good Grocers is natural and there are large produce, dairy, meat, seafood, imported cheese and ethnic food sections in addition to the standard frozen pizzas and grocery items.
Customers can choose from dozens of cooking and hot sauces, Indian and Asian specialties, artisan pastas, coffees and teas—everything that a higher-end grocery store might carry.
There’s more in the works, as well. In March, the plan is to open a Good-To-Go section with ready-to-eat choices such as sandwiches and sushi. And soon after, the store will launch Good Eatery, an in-store coffee shop serving deli-style foods.
Vickman is also planning to begin to label some products as “Good Certified,” vetting companies that are doing good, not just tasting good. “The Good Grocer is defined by the word ‘Good,’” said Vickman.
The store manages to keep prices low because of their mostly volunteer staff. There are two prices listed for everything, the regular price and the 20 percent discount price for those who volunteer at least two-and-a-half hours a month. Volunteers do not need to be facing food insecurity to get the discount.
The grocery currently has 600 volunteers, but they could use more, Vickman said. “Prices are low because in grocery stores, the biggest expense is labor. Volunteers lower our costs and let us lower our prices.”
“Volunteers are the heartbeat of Good Grocer,” he said. “Volunteers do inventory, stock the shelves, cashier and bag groceries, answer phones, data entry and much more.”
And at least during the pandemic, curbside pickup and delivery will be available for those who want it, also provided by volunteers.
Part of the money saved by having volunteers staff the store will be funneled to the Food Outlet, a mini-version of the larger store, designed to serve those who have limited or uncertain access to sufficient or high quality foods. Those with the need can apply for a six-month membership. Members will receive a 75 percent discount at the Outlet, which will be launching soon and will be open each Saturday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.
People living in Whittier and those from outside the neighborhood are starting to discover Good Grocer. Davin Branwall, a chef and culinary instructor living in Uptown, took a bus to Eat Street, planning to shop at the Asian grocery store across the street. He saw the Good Grocer sign and dropped in to check it out.
“It’s my first time here,” he said. “The produce is super, super fresh. It looks gorgeous. I would put this up against high-end grocers. And look at the prices. For most people, food is the number one expense. But that cheese,” he said, pointing out a package of BelGioioso mozzarella, “It’s $2.99. At Whole Foods, it’s $3.95. At Cub, it’s—I’m not sure, but I think it’s $5.99.”
Vickman hopes that more people like Branwall will also shop at Good Grocer for the prices, the choices and the quality. The more people who buy at full price, the more those who need discounted foods can get them, he said.
“We are glad they found a space still in the Whittier neighborhood,” said Kaley Brown, executive director of the Whittier Alliance neighborhood association.
Brown watched construction of the building and talked with Vickman about the store’s mission.
“A number of residents here don’t have a car. They could walk to the old location and can still walk to the new location,” she said.
“A lot of residents here experience food insecurity, so the Good Grocer helps them, too. And the Good Grocer gives people an opportunity to volunteer, so it’s a good community builder. We’re glad they were able to stay in the neighborhood.”