Brave New Bodegas


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.

Each project is unique, and so are the regions the client stores inhabit. Urban Detroit, Piett says, currently lacks even one chain supermarket. The only grocers willing to take a chance on the ailing city are independent operators—and there are in fact hundreds of neighborhood stores, many of them owned by Chaldeans, a group of Iraqi Christians that migrated here en masse in the early 1900s.

"Chaldean store owners and black customers don't always play well together," Piett says. "But at the same time they need each other." Changes to retail space, he says, involve a high degree of integration and coordination. "If I'm going to change a corner store, I have to deal with the owner, the space, the customers, the suppliers, public health agencies, the occasional real estate developer and local economic development nonprofit, and city, state, or municipal governments."

Because of Piett's brand of retail therapy, corner stores in poor neighborhoods are now becoming the only source of fresh vegetables in areas otherwise known as food deserts.

But he has the most direct contact with the store owners. "This one grocer, he had some apples already so I was like, 'Dude, I'ma play with the apples.' I got them set up in bushel baskets, and he didn't like that. Then we fought about the plantains. He won. He felt like his community prefers things that are packaged, so we went with it. You figure out what makes the most sense for a space and for a community. My work is like therapy. I want to help grocers to re-imagine their space to the point they make the most money."

Because of Piett's brand of retail therapy, corner stores in poor neighborhoods are now becoming the only source of fresh vegetables in areas otherwise known as food deserts. He thinks if anyone can bring foliage back to the food deserts, it's independent grocers. They already have much of the infrastructure they need, and can be more flexible than the chains, which tend to have higher costs for union labor, security, and real estate.

President Obama has caught on to the importance of the "Healthy Bodegas" movement, as some people call Piett's line of work. There's a program initiative in his budget, yet to be funded, that would increase the healthy options available in urban markets.

Piett can talk for a long time about such intricacies with nary a pause for breath. When I pointed this out, he acknowledged, "Yeah, I guess I do dig retail. But mostly I dig the retailers themselves. You have to be risk-tolerant. And I like the egalitarianism of retail. You don't have to come from an Ivy League education. You don't have to be big. If I find a really good honest purveyor, I know that I can get them to good food. And I know I can make good food make money for them."