Brave New Bodegas

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James Johnson Piett


James Johnson Piett digs retail, specifically food retail. "You know in that movie, Pulp Fiction, how there's this character named The Wolf who fixes things?" he told a roomful of food advocates last week. "That's who I am. I'm a fixer for grocery stores. I design, build, attract financing, a full suite of services to help them move from point A to point B."

Piett's company, Urbane Development, works to bring fresh produce and other healthy foods to small stores in underserved communities like Detroit, Newark, and South Philadelphia. He uses the term "bodegas" to describe the kind of integrated stores he aims to create. Bodegas tend to have meaningful relationships with their customers, he says. I met Piett in Turin, Italy at the Slow Food convention Terra Madre. One of his priorities while traveling in Europe was to study what makes European bodega-style markets successful, in hopes of importing applicable models to the U.S.

"My work is like therapy," Piett says. "I want to help grocers to re-imagine their space to the point they make the most money."

"In the U.S., bodega owners that have good relationships with their customers will sometimes tape pictures of their customers' kids to the plexiglass by the cash register," he told me. "In Europe, this kind of relationship translates into purveyors saving the last of the season's peaches for their customers who haven't made jam yet."

Grocers that are connected with their clients are more likely to be invested in their health, and of course poor diet has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, and other complications of obesity. In 2008, the American Journal of Epidemiology reported that people with no supermarket near their homes were up to 46 percent less likely to eat a healthy diet than those with more shopping options. Urbane Development contracts with cities, states, municipalities, public health agencies, and developers to bring healthy food into neighborhood stores that specialize in the likes of chips, soft drinks, and candy. Such stores are often the only food shopping options for miles, and have become the focus of public health advocates.

But in a business with such low profit margins, convincing small grocers to stock perishable produce with no guarantee that customers will buy it is often a losing proposition—especially when proven sellers like Twinkies, cigarettes, and lottery tickets don't spoil.

Piett's business offers technical assistance for product sourcing, merchandising, and handling, as well as financial support programs like lines of credit and grants that provide grocers with the operating capital they need to dabble in healthy, risky offerings.

"It's easier to finance hard costs like construction and equipment than perishable inventory or even insurance," Piett says. "Cash flow is king."

His first client store, in Philadelphia, added 1,000 square feet and still managed to lower its power bills by 40 percent, thanks to the strategic use of soy-based insulation, recycled sheet rock, low-emittance ("low-e") windows, and energy-efficient refrigeration and lights.

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Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that has appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 21 states. Learn more at flashinthepan.net.

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