Detroit-based Fresh Corner Café is tackling the issue of getting affordable, high-quality meals to residents who are living in food deserts. This innovative, mission-driven business is strategically leveraging the expansive network of neighborhood convenience stores in the city to market fresh, ready-to-eat meals. We spoke with Co-founder Val Waller about her company’s mission to get healthy food to all Detroiters.
What is a Food Desert?
A geographic area such as an urban neighborhood or rural town that lacks access to affordable, fresh, and nutritious food. For those without access to a car, these areas are particularly challenging because they are typically only served by fast food restaurants and convenience stores, leaving residents with very few options to purchase healthy meals and resulting in higher rates of obesity and other diet-related diseases.
Can you tell us the story of how Fresh Corner Café got started?
Val Waller: The idea developed when two members of a six-student team stumbled across a variety package of cut vegetables labeled as soup mix inside a Mexican grocery store in Detroit. Marveling at the power of convenience, the pair convened their team and etched out the beginnings of a business plan that would soon win $1,000 in a business plan competition. 18 months, four rounds of customer surveys, two focus groups, and multiple iterations later, what began as a course project evolved into a blossoming business.
What story makes you smile most when thinking about your company?
VW: What makes me smile most when thinking about our company is the idea of leaving a legacy - knowing that the work we do will hopefully be earmarked as part of the beginning of a larger trend of healthy eating, access to reliable healthy food, and food sovereignty in current and future Detroit development.
Can you tell us about your business model - how are you keeping costs low enough for everyone to be able to afford fresh, healthy food?
VW: We use a cross-subsidization model in an attempt to keep prices low. We’re currently working on making prices even lower and accepting EBT [Electronic Benefit Transfer] cards for our workplaces and lunch-stands to further aid those who want to buy our products.
Is your business model scalable? Could it be applied to other food deserts in the US?
VW: We definitely believe our model is scalable. Detroit is unique with regard to the massive amount of convenience stores, however, we’re confident and have looked into bringing our model to other places such as Oakland, California, for example. Field leaders Policy Link and Food Trust point to a person’s relative proximity to healthy and unhealthy food retailers as a top indicator of and contributor to obesity, but traditional government interventions rely on big-box retailers to solve the problem. However, only a minority of the 550,000 Detroiters identified by Mari Gallagher as living in food deserts will benefit from a smattering of new grocery stores that are typically placed in more dense and affluent areas.
Why does Fresh Corner Café sell many of its products via convenience stores?
VW: While grocery stores offer exciting economic development tools, they don’t address the problem of urban sprawl and poor transportation. Given the 700,000+ Detroiters dispersed across 139 square miles and the 70,000 households lacking private transportation, Fresh Corner Café acknowledges the important role physical proximity plays in access to healthy food. By connecting an expansive network of strong neighborhood stores with a burgeoning local food supply, our business model reduces barriers, uplifts existing assets, and targets neighborhoods with the most need.
What was the biggest hurdle to getting Fresh Corner Café off the ground and how did you overcome it?
VW: One of our biggest and ongoing hurdles is the simple fact that many people don’t expect to see the types of products we provide in our selected retail spaces. Changing the social schema connected to these places has been difficult, so we opted to initially focus on creating a “store-within-a- store” concept. This has worked for the most part, but we also felt that shifting the perception of these spaces will never happen with that tactic alone.
We’ve overcome this perception challenge by being more active in these retail spaces. We give out free samples so that people can taste the food and see a face behind the products. A lot of our progress has been about relationship building and, because we are small, we can take the time to meet people and curate good experiences with our products.
Are there any other innovative businesses out there that are bringing healthy food into food deserts that you’re excited about?
VW: Yes! The Fair Food Network and its Double Up Food Bucks program provides Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries with the ability to receive two dollars worth of fresh, Michigan-grown produce for every dollar they spend.
Another great business that we have partnered with - it makes our yogurt parfaits and all of our fruit cups - is Peaches & Greens. It is a small produce market located in the New Center area of Detroit. Funded by the CDC (Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation), its mission is to provide community residents the opportunity to have a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance.
As one of the leaders of your organization, what insights do you have about quality leadership?
VW: Step 1: Don’t take yourself too seriously. Really, when all of this first started, I felt like I had to know how to do everything, have all of the answers, and be all the change I wanted to see in the world. Looking back, that is ridiculous and hindering for a few reasons: if you think you know everything, where do you find space to grow and learn? Where do you find space to ask for help? Where do others find space to offer it to you? The whole “fake it until you make it” concept can only get you so far. I feel that the true difference between leaders and followers is that leaders aren’t afraid of failure or reaching out to others.
On that note.... Step 2: Trust your people. When you’re running your own business, it’s easy to get too wrapped up in everything. You have a vision of how you’d like to handle things but it’s hard to trust that others can execute things in the same manner. We’ve surrounded ourselves with people that we can trust and really communicate with. Our team - the “Fresh Corner Crew” as we like to call ourselves - is just as passionate and driven as we are and when they’re out around town delivering or meeting people, because of their passion, we trust in their ability to be awesome brand ambassadors.