Jeannette Vickman cherished her 11 years working as a mental health therapist for Melrose Center, where she helped people of all ages recover from eating disorders.
But Vickman began to burn out during the shift to remote tele-health sessions during the pandemic. She longed to reconnect with people face-to-face.
She found quite the fresh way to do that.
These days, the ebullient 41-year-old Vickman spends 30 hours a week behind the cash register at Good Grocer. The south Minneapolis store offers everything you'd expect of a compact, yet full-service grocer — from seasonal produce to toilet paper to cereal to cat chow — using a wholly unexpected model of operation.
Good Grocer, at 2650 Nicollet Av. S., is a volunteer-powered nonprofit, in partnership with the market-rate apartments above it, called the Good Dwelling. The formula for offering healthy food at a low cost is the brainchild of Vickman's husband, Kurt Vickman, a real estate developer and part owner of Good Dwelling who has long been driven by social entrepreneurship.
"There really isn't a model like this," 50-year-old Kurt Vickman said, although he did pick up ideas from other discount grocery stores and co-ops.
Anyone can shop at Good Grocer (goodgrocer.org), but those who regularly volunteer 2½ hours a month receive an additional 20% discount on groceries. The store also features a food outlet with items discounted by as much as 70%.
More than 200 volunteers work the three cash registers and stock shelves at the 8,000-square-foot store, including residents of Good Dwelling, the Whittier neighborhood and retirees from across the Twin Cities.
The Vickmans, who live in Edina, also welcome volunteers from Minnesota Independence College and Community (MICC), a Richfield-based nonprofit serving young adults with learning differences, and Lionsgate Academy, a Minnetonka public charter school catering to young people with autism.
There's also an impressive cast of Vickmans, including Kurt's 80-year-old dad, John Vickman, a retired accountant with KMPG, and the couple's two daughters, Kinsley, 10, who works the cash register when she's not in school, and Brooklyn, 7, who specializes in Oreo sampling.
But the target group for volunteers, Kurt said, are those who live near the store; as many as 20% of neighbors on this stretch of "Eat Street" struggle with food insecurity. He's quick to note, however, that the significant price savings is only one motivation they give for signing up.
"They'll often say, 'I like to help people,' he said. He recalled one volunteer who, when handed an application, confessed that he couldn't read. Kurt helped him fill it out so he could begin working. "I told him, 'We need you here. There's a spot for you here.'
"For some reason, we have constructed systems that have overlooked the people we seek to help, assuming that they can't be the mechanism to help themselves. Some of that needs to be broken down so we can see the people walking through the doors as our greatest asset."
Added Jeannette: "We wanted to create a place that was beautiful aesthetically but more than that, a place that said to neighbors: 'You deserve to be here.'"
Model built on dignity
Years ago, when Jeannette was a practicing therapist, Kurt started a small food shelf called the Minneapolis Market in the basement of Redeemer Missionary Baptist Church in south Minneapolis. Groceries were donated by church members and neighbors, and were offered to those in need for free.
But Kurt became concerned as he watched people arrive with their hands out and heads down. The model of taking without being able to also give, he worried, was "stripping people of their dignity and self-sufficiency."
When the market expanded from the church into a storefront location on Lake Street, he shifted to an "empowerment" model, recruiting volunteers and gratefully accepting the few dollars they could offer to help pay for the food they took.
In 2018, the store was forced to close because of construction on I-35W. Kurt spent the next three years developing and designing Good Dwelling and Good Grocer, complicated enough on its own — and then the pandemic hit.
"It was an incredibly turbulent three years," Kurt said. But he kept focused, drawing strength from envisioning what he wanted to create for his two daughters.
"I want my girls to be connected to people of different economic statuses and racial realities," he said. "A grocery store can bring those people together."
Good Grocer opened in January 2021. UNFI provides familiar grocery products; smaller companies offer more locally sourced items, such as rice from a Minnesota farm and ice cream sandwiches from a family in Iowa.
One successful strategy that is keeping the store afloat, the Vickmans agree, is tapping into the considerable experience of community members. Steve Berlin, for example, is a veteran of the grocery trade, beginning his career in 1968. Now 75, he "was looking for something to do," and realized his skill set was a good match for Good Grocer.
These days, he said, he culls produce, cleans up cases and gives Jeannette ideas — and friendly advice: "Don't bring any more sweet corn in! Sweet corn is done!"
Good Grocer is open seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Marketing volunteer Mark Daum, 64, said a big challenge is to correct misconceptions about the store, such as that it's a co-op and you must be a member to shop there (nope), or that you have to live at Good Dwelling above to shop there (also nope).
"There's also the misconception that it might be expensive," Daum said, due to the new building and contemporary design.
Or not expensive enough, added Kurt Vickman.
"Often, people get confused and think that our food is donated and is, therefore, not high-quality and not for them," Kurt said.
"The reality is we get our food from the same place Cub gets its food, so it's high-quality. So you are doing good [by shopping here] because all the profits from your purchases go to reducing the price of food for those who are struggling."
To get the word out, the Vickmans are partnering with nearby Whittier Cooperative and lower-income housing units within a 10-block radius. They've distributed coupons, gift cards and informational fliers and are planning family-focused events around holidays — Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day — to bring the community together with entertainment, cookies and crafts.
They also hope to open the Good Eatery, a cafe inside the grocery store, sometime in 2023 to further build community out of an eclectic population of neighbors.
And by the way, Jeannette said, they sure could use another 200 or so volunteers (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). She promises it will be well worth your time.
"Our girls have encountered different interactions [at the store] that we chat about at night, stories that Kurt and I bring home. Our hope is that, as parents, we can teach our kiddos that there is a wide range of humanity, and that the life they get to live on a daily basis is not the life others are able to live.
"Food was where we started," Jeannette said, "but for Kurt and me, this is more of a place of belonging. I wish I could be here more."