Kurt Vickman believes it is finally time for some good news.
After his Lake Street grocery store was forced to close and relocate to make way for the Interstate 35W expansion a few years ago, Vickman is set to reopen his "volunteer-powered" Good Grocer in the heart of Eat Street on Friday.
"You just see everything shutting down," Vickman said. "It's time for something to open up."
South Minneapolis commerce has been hit hard in the past year. The riots following the police killing of George Floyd added to temporary shutdowns, and slower traffic because of the coronavirus pandemic has caused closures.
The new grocery store will be about 9,000 square feet, double the size of the former store. With the added space, Good Grocer was able to double the number of products it offers with 8,000 natural and fresh items including a large section of organic produce, artisan cheese, fresh seafood and meat.
Good Grocer hopes to appeal to the same customers who might shop at Whole Foods or the Wedge Community Co-op.
However, what sets Good Grocer apart from most other stores is that it is 90% staffed by volunteers, which saves labor costs. Those who volunteer 2.5 hours a month get a 20% discount on food.
To Vickman, the social enterprise helps provide quality food at a reduced price as well as a sense of community ownership.
"They're cashiers," Vickman said. "They're grocery baggers. They're the people who clean the store, who stock the store. We are truly a neighborhood-run, community-run grocery store at the highest level."
So far, Good Grocer has recruited about 400 volunteers, with a goal of adding several hundred more.
COVID-19 has provided a challenging backdrop for the store and the grocery industry in general. Grocers have been busy during the pandemic as they have continued to help consumers stay stocked on necessities. The safety of workers rushing around busy stores has been a growing concern.
Good Grocer volunteers are undergoing additional training to what was originally planned to help follow COVID-19 health protocols and keep workers and customers safe. For example, checkout counters will be wiped down every hour with disinfectant, Vickman said.
The new grocery store, which was built on a parking lot, will have more space for other food options as well. There will be a Good-To-Go area for quick, prepackaged items like sushi and sandwiches. In about a month, Vickman plans to open an in-store Good Eatery that will offer coffee, wraps, salads and other selections.
Another new addition will be a 900-square-foot Food Outlet that will be open every Saturday and offer shoppers 50 to 75% discounts if they qualify as having food insecurity issues.
To qualify for the six-month Food Outlet membership, customers need to visit Good Grocer's website and answer questions ranging from if they had to skip meals to save money to if they are enrolled in a government assistance program.
Similar to other grocery stores, Good Grocer will offer same-day services from curbside pickup to delivery, which also will be done by volunteer grocers. The idea to start Good Grocer came about after Vickman visited a food shelf and thought the model could be improved — letting people work to get the quality food they wanted as opposed to solely relying on the charity of others.
"I felt like in that exchange … it was eroding people's dignity," Vickman said.
Vickman believes the Good Grocer model helps empower people to make their own contributions and be part of the solution. There is still a need for food shelves and other food distribution sites that popped up as a response to some of the unrest when some food providers had to close down.
"We see our role as the long-term solution to that reality," he said.
Good Grocer operates as a nonprofit, but Vickman said it shouldn't be interpreted that everyone who volunteers or shops at the store needs discounts.
The quality of the products will be similar to other natural food grocers, Vickman said. Plus, the more customers who buy items at full price, the more the grocery store is able to provide discounts to those who need it.
Vickman is hopeful that the entire enterprise can be fully financially sustainable in the next year.
The grocery store is below the market-rate Good Dwelling apartments, which are co-owned by Vickman and another partner who bought the air rights for the space and not part of the nonprofit.
"Many neighbors in Whittier and surrounding neighborhoods would previously walk to Good Grocer at their old location on Lake Street, and we are thrilled they were able to secure a location in Whittier for that to continue," said Kaley Brown, executive director of the Whittier Alliance Neighborhood Association. "Whittier has an active community of volunteers, and I know Good Grocer will certainly benefit from those ready to roll up their sleeves again to support their mission."
Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495