Three Lessons from Creativity in a Food Desert

I have been thinking about this article for many days now.

Why A Philadelphia Grocery Chain Is Thriving In Food Deserts

It gave me so much hope, but I’ve had to step back a minute to figure out why. Today I want to analyze this with you and see what lessons we can apply to other “big problems” in our cities.

First, a short summary. The article highlights the creative work of Jeff Brown of Brown’s Super Stores in figuring out something that has eluded many grocery companies: How to sell wholesome food–and make a profit–in low income areas. The food desert problem is dire in many cities. I know from experience in Chicago that going into grocery stores in low income areas can be shocking; the dearth of fresh food is alarming. But access to fresh and healthy options is not the only problem. The cost of those options and not knowing what to do with them inhibits buyers in hard-pressed areas. Because of these challenges, Jeff Brown and his team relied heavily on market research to understand their local consumer and respond to meet their needs in stunningly varied ways. Brown’s Super Stores did everything from stacking tomatoes in pretty pyramids to altering bus routes to demarcating separate Halal meat sections to offering health exams. I am so impressed both with the quality of their research and with their willingness to experiment with solutions.

Lesson #1: You can never ask enough questions.
The market research in this project is what Design Thinking Coaches call the Empathy stage. It is going the extra mile to get in the shoes of the people in your target market and understand the complexity of their position. It differs from most research because it doesn’t ask pointed questions to validate decisions that have already been made. It is agenda-less learning; analysis can happen later. Without asking these painstaking questions, Brown’s team might never have realized how critical a close bus stop would be, or how bank access, like healthy food, is hard to come by in poorer areas. The best part is that asking these questions not only yields business solutions, but it honors the customers and establishes relationships.

Lesson #2: It’s about relationship, stupid. 
Everywhere you go you hear about “eating local.” One big reason I believe this is the case is that knowing where your food comes from gives you not only a sense of peace but also a sense of community. Farmers markets are fun because you get to talk to people, build relationships, ask questions about the food and what to do with it. I LOVE holding up an unknown vegetable to a seller and learning about how great it can taste in soup. Brown’s team has championed this relationship-building through thoughtful questions, staying accessible to the customer, and continuously figuring out how to build loyalty, even going so far as to host a jazz club on the second floor.

Lesson #3: Experiment, Experiment, Experiment
I once heard a pastor at a conference share about programs she helped start at her Washington DC church. The audience listened with rapturous attention as she told us about homeless ministries and art programs for inner-city kids. The secret of her church’s success, she said, was their attitude. Any time someone had an idea for a way to help people, she would say, “Go and experiment.” If it didn’t work, she would just say, “It was an experiment!” and that would be the end of it. This is taking the phrase, “There’s no harm in trying” to another level, because it confronts that overinflated sense of risk and pops it like a balloon. I love it. This article reminded me of that marvelous “experiment” mindset because Brown’s team could have easily neglected the research they gathered, as so many other companies do. They could have said, “It’s too difficult to stack the tomatoes” or “We aren’t in the banking business.” But, at least from this article, it doesn’t seem like they ever did say such things. They acted on the empathy research, and that inspires me.

I hope these lessons encourage you to go the extra mile with your endeavors. Just imagine what we can accomplish!


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