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May 15, 2015

Philly grocery chain thrives in 'food deserts'

How Brown's Super Stores defied a trend in Southwest Philly

Grocers Brown's Super Stores
041515_grocery Stock/AP

Food access in Philadelphia saw significant improvement between 2005-2013, according to The Reinvestment Fund, a community development financial institution.

Running a successful grocery chain in low-income areas of any big city is a serious challenge. How to balance affordability with a varied selection of healthy food options can be an imperfect science, and if it's not learned quickly, an idealistic experiment will quickly fall apart.

Brown's Super Stores, part of the ShopRite franchise, opened its first store in Southwest Philadelphia in 2004. At the time, many thought owner Jeff Brown was taking a huge risk, given the experience of previous health-focused markets in the area. Eleven years later, the fourth generation grocer operates seven profitable locations in and around Philadelphia.

How did Brown strike such an elusive balance? As NPR discusses in a piece examining the success of Brown's Super Stores, the owner engaged community leaders directly from the outset to determine exactly what was considered most desirable by local residents. Then, Brown invested in a staff that would bolster selection by focusing on effective marketing and presentation of healthier options inside the market.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited 6,500 food deserts in rural and urban areas around the country. That lack of access is a big contributor to poor diet and higher levels of obesity that in turn raise the prevalence of related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Brown's thriving markets stand in contrast to similar efforts elsewhere, such as Apples and Oranges Fresh Market in Baltimore, whose demise after opening in 2013 is discussed in a blog post by The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Brown, meanwhile, has identified the importance of leveraging community relationships and adding related services that enhance the value of the market to regular customers. Some locations now include credit unions, staff nutritionists, social workers, and even health clinics.

At this stage, Brown is looking to bring in other outlets, such as beer gardens and cafes, that will help address the social problems he believes are the main threats to business. To help other grocers overcome the challenges of operating in food deserts, his company now consults with other grocers through a nonprofit called UpLift Solutions.

Read more at NPR.