Michael McFarland and Marckus Williams put bags of chips, canned vegetables and diapers in their cars to be delivered to a local homeless shelter.
The two boys are in their thirties and childhood friends.
“We grew up together in the same neighborhood we used to go to school, ride bikes, fix cars, you know, just everyday friends,” Williams said.
You live in northeast Indianapolis and have also seen the area change over time. Up to five grocery stores have closed in recent years, leaving thousands of residents struggling and feeling neglected.
A few years ago, McFarland and Williams wanted to start a business together. They thought about opening a variety shop that sells t-shirts and other things. However, when they learned that their neighborhood is considered a food wasteland, they decided to start Wall Street Grocery, a small grocery store on 38th Street.
But things weren’t easy. They were struggling with a razor-thin profit margin and were constantly faced with obstacles with distributors and supply chains – some distributors didn’t want to come to their area and others delivered fruit or vegetables on certain days and not on others. Nevertheless, the shop was a lifeline for many residents.
McFarland and Williams continued to be actively involved in working with local community organizations and health authorities.
“I guess our name stuck on a lot of people,” said McFarland.
That has led to their next big business – they are closing down Wall Street Grocery and preparing to run and own a full-size, multi-million dollar grocery store that opens next year on 38th Street and Sheridan Avenue.
Community-led corporate social responsibility project
It all started when family-run medical device maker Cook Medical decided to build its new facility near the Arlington Woods neighborhood. The facility will manufacture needles, catheters, and other medical devices that will be used in hospitals around the world. The new facility will create more than 100 jobs which was great news for this underserved community.
Still, a problem kept cropping up.
“One of the things we heard from so many people was that access to food was a problem,” said Pete Yonkman, president of Cook Medical. “You have left five grocery stores in the past five years and 100,000 people have no access to food.”
While it was never part of Cook Medical’s original business plan, they decided to spend $ 2.5 million building a new grocery store to solve food access issues – to serve the community and retain local staff.
However, as a medical technology company based in Bloomington, Indiana, Cook Medical did not have the expertise to run a grocery store. Yonkman got the chance to meet McFarland and Williams at their convenience store and that’s when things went well.
“Here were two guys who were passionate about it, they grew up in the neighborhood, they want to do this for their community,” said Yonkman. “So when that comes together – you have opportunity and expertise come together – it would just sound like something we could do.”
Upon completion of construction of the new grocery store, which will be named Indy Fresh Market, Cook will transfer operations and ownership to McFarland and Williams on a hire-purchase model. While it’s too early to predict, McFarland said that with their prospective sales, it won’t be long before they own 100% of the store.
“It will take about two to four years,” said McFarland. “It’s not bad to have your own grocery store.”
The local ownership of the business gives new hope to local residents. Yonkman said this type of community-led approach will also make it easier for the business to tailor its programs and operations to meet the specific needs of the community.
“[McFarland and Williams] are committed to making room in the grocery store so local growers they know can bring their products to the grocery store, ”said Yonkman. “You can run educational programs that teach people foods they may never have seen before. We’re working together right now trying to find a way to ensure that people who are prescribed food as medicine can pay for it in the grocery store. “
Kash Rangan, a professor at Harvard Business School, said this is a corporate social responsibility (CSR) model that has the potential to “solve real problems.”
“It’s a brilliant model,” said Rangan. “It’s a unique model. But they have to go the extra mile to be successful. “
That extra mile would provide ongoing financial and logistical support in case the new grocery store owners need it later. He said that in this case, Cook Medical will lay the foundation for a state-of-the-art CSR model. However, he cautioned that if the company takes an approach too early, the company could become just another corporate vanity project.
From a public health perspective, the store’s premise sounds promising, as a full-size store will make it easier for residents to access fresh food. Cook also made sure the store didn’t sell alcohol or tobacco.
But if affordability and awareness are not considered, the community may not see any improvement in their overall health, according to Niyati Parekh, professor of global public health at New York University. She said investing in programs to ensure affordable fresh food prices and creating incentives to encourage residents to spend their hard-earned money on healthier options could set this project apart.
“It could be that a grocery store is incentivizing: the more fruits and vegetables you buy, the more bonus points you can buy,” she said. “There could be very creative ways.”
When McFarland and Williams close their current supermarket, they realize that a lot depends on their plans. For now, they are starting a shadowing program with local grocery chains and a training program with the National Grocers Association to prepare for their new role at Indy Fresh Market.
They said their personal interest in both the store and the community will play a huge role in the store’s future success.
This story was told through a partnership between WFYI, Side Effects Public Media, and the Indianapolis Recorder. Contact Farah Yousry at [email protected] or 857-285-0449. Follow her on Twitter @Farah_Yoursrym.