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."
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."