Khaled “Mike” Azem admits he was skeptical at first. Why, he wondered, would anyone expect him to stock a lot of fruit and vegetables in a convenience store that sells mostly chips and snacks? “Come on,” he said, “who’s going to buy grapes from me?”
But now Azem, who owns the Fremont Market in north Minneapolis, displays baskets of peaches, apples and bananas on the front counter, right next to the candy. He also hosts a sidewalk farm stand, selling avocados, tomatoes, zucchini and other produce every week throughout the summer.
For Azem, fruit and veggies may not be big moneymakers. But he credits an unusual business venture, run largely by students at the University of St. Thomas, with helping to make all this bounty available to his customers.
At BrightSide Produce, college students and local teenagers team up to deliver fresh produce, at discount prices, to corner stores like Azem’s in low-income neighborhoods.
Since its founding in 2014, BrightSide has attracted national attention for its unconventional — some would say groundbreaking — business model, which turned what is often a money-losing proposition into a thriving enterprise.
“I’m prone to a bit of hyperbole,” says Adam Kay, a St. Thomas biology professor, who is one of the co-founders. But he believes he and his team have created the first “economically sustainable” solution to a nationwide problem.
For years, experts have agonized over urban “food deserts,” where groceries and healthful food options are scarce. Typically, says Kay, the corner stores that dominate poor neighborhoods don’t sell much produce — and have to charge more when they do — because they can’t meet the minimum orders required by wholesalers. So there’s no financial incentive to change.
But with BrightSide, store owners can order as little as they want and still get a break on costs. BrightSide buys in bulk and supplies fruit and vegetables to some two dozen convenience stores in low-income neighborhoods. Then it sells whatever is left — at a small profit — to a group of customers back on campus.
Last year, says Kay, more than 100 faculty members, staff and students at St. Thomas and nearby St. Catherine University joined BrightSide’s “buyer’s club” to support the enterprise. Each member pays up to $10 a week for a share of the unsold merchandise, which is delivered to drop-off points on the St. Paul campuses.
The buyer’s club was the key that “makes this whole program work,” Kay said. It brings in enough extra money to cover expenses and has widespread appeal. “You’re not just buying fruit and vegetables from us,” Kay said. “You’re participating in this movement.”
The concept was so innovative that it was named a finalist in the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, an international competition.
In north Minneapolis, where BrightSide partners with some stores to run sidewalk farm stands, the reaction can be effusive.
“This is like a dream,” said Reality Tisdale, who lives near the Fremont Market, as she scanned a colorful display of mangoes, peppers, watermelon and other produce outside the store. It was quite a surprise, she said, and exactly what her neighborhood needs.
“We’ve had people tell us we’re a godsend,” said Nicole Herrli, a St. Thomas student and BrightSide’s business manager. “Even if they don’t buy anything, it’s like, ‘This is beautiful, keep it up.’ ”
Iana Castro, a marketing professor at San Diego State University, was so impressed that she decided to open a branch of BrightSide in California this summer.
“I think it could be huge,” said Castro, who has studied the food-desert phenomenon. There have been many attempts to address the problem by government agencies and others, she said. But what makes BrightSide stand out is that it pays for itself.
“These multiple income streams, and the fact that students were in charge, made it actually feasible to have this be a self-sustaining venture,” she said.
Now she’s putting it to the test in San Diego, where BrightSide launched in five stores in June, and will open a buyer’s club on campus this fall. “I really believe,” she said, “that this model can make a lot of difference.”
So far, BrightSide is still a modest operation — it sells only about $40,000 worth of produce a year in the Twin Cities, according to Kay, co-director of the project. And it relies heavily on a volunteer workforce, including a small army of St. Thomas students and two Twin Cities teenagers, Demetria Fuller and Adam Pruitt, who were among the founders of BrightSide.
But Kay and his colleagues say they’re optimistic that their fledgling enterprise could have a much bigger effect before long.
“We’re just scratching the surface of who we can get involved in this,” Kay said. Already, he’s had conversations with interested churches, and he’s had requests from people off campus who want to join the buyer’s club.
“We’ve had to say we can’t do it; we don’t have the capacity,” Kay said. But he hopes that will change.
In the meantime, he said, the number of participating stores has grown, and “this year sales have really started to go up.” That’s especially good news for store owners like Azem, who may have been skeptical about the demand for fresh fruit and vegetables. Says Kay: “There’s also this idea of, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ You can create demand.”
He also takes heart from a recent story about a woman with a cane who made her way to one of BrightSide’s farm stands, marveling at the fresh kale. “She said she hadn’t had fresh vegetables in months until that stand was here,” Kay said. “How many stories like that do we need to start feeling like we’re doing the right thing?”