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A neighborhood grocery store that does it all

The ShopRite of Parkside

The ShopRite of Parkside

Banking services at ShopRite

Health care services at ShopRite

Philadelphia is often described as a city driven by "Eds and Meds" -- educational and medical institutions employ more than 200,000 people, stimulate economic development and reshape neighborhoods such as University City and Graduate Hospital. 

But what is the engine of development for parts of the city without an Ed or a Med?

How about a ShopRite?

Since 2008, the ShopRite of Parkside on 52nd Street, owned by the Brown family, has been pushing the limits of what it means to be a local grocery store. And they're doing it in a low-income neighborhood that was told for 40 years that there was not a local customer base to support one.

"We were very skeptical of them at first," recalls Lucinda Hudson, president of the Parkside Association of Philadelphia. "But the Brown family was exceptional. They met in our community, they put their hiring office in our community -- they have done some wonderful things."

Those wonderful things include more than just hawking produce and canned goods. Ninety-five percent of the Parkside ShopRite's employees are hired from within a three-mile radius. The store provides access to financial services and healthcare, and has supported a wide array of neighborhood development projects. And starting next summer, the ShopRite is seeking to become a social destination as well, adding a 200-seat Jazz Cafe serving food, wine and craft beer.

Beyond Food

ShopRite is the largest supermarket co-op in the country. Spanning six northeastern states, the organization features 50 different owner groups that all do business under the ShopRite name. Brown's Superstores is one of those groups; they operate the Parkside location along with 10 other stores in and around Philadelphia.

"We're a little different as a supermarket operator," explains Paul Brauer, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Brown's Superstores. "We have a mission that says we want to bring joy to the lives of the people we serve."

That mission starts with the food. Brauer goes out of his way to stock his stores with products from near and far. That includes everything from West Philadelphia's own Dre's Water Ice and Ice Cream, to tastes from the home countries of Parkside's immigrants.

"[New residents] are in a country that is scary, with different religions and different thought processes," says Brauer. "And here's the brand of canned corn beef they got when they were a child. It means a lot to people."

Going beyond the store's edible offerings, Brauer also sees the ShopRite as a neighborhood resource -- a place to work, a place to shop, a place to relax and a place to receive essential services.

In Parkside, like in many low-income neighborhoods, banking options are extremely limited. Brauer noticed this and found a partner -- the American Heritage Federal Credit Union -- willing to establish a location inside the ShopRite. The AHFCU location offers no-fee ATMs and no-minimum checking and savings accounts to local residents. According to Brauer, it is one of AHFCU's busiest branches.

"That is a big, big, big plus because there were so many people who did not have bank accounts," explains Hudson. "They would go to check cashing places. Now they have a bank account."

Hudson also emphasizes the health impact of the store. Instead of taking a bus to and from the Main Line or shopping in corner stores with limited selections and little fresh produce, residents have fresh, nutritious and well-priced groceries available within walking distance. Health is on Brauer's radar too -- he has added an on-site pharmacy and public health clinic, and hosts nutritionists and dietitians ready to serve residents and shoppers.

The list of services and programs provided or supported by Brauer and the Brown family ShopRite goes on and on: GED and financial training for employees, a pump track for youth BMX biking, urban gardens, neighborhood cleans-ups, Halloween parties, toy drives and food pantries.

"We have a wonderful marriage," says Hudson of the community's relationship with the store. "And we'll be married forever. That's how great they are to us."

Bigger and better

In the face of increasing competition in the supermarket business from e-commerce providers such as Amazon Fresh and FreshDirect, one might expect Brauer to cut expenses by scaling back on community-focused programs. The truth is just the opposite. 

Brauer and his team are ready to compete in the online grocery marketplace, but it will likely mean they need less square footage for traditional grocery shoppers.

"We're not interested in having less square footage," says Brauer. "We want to use our square footage for better things."

So beginning in the summer 2016, the Parkside ShopRite will be home to a jazz venue offering an affordable and stylish place to dine and drink -- something sorely needed in the neighborhood. The space will host performances and serve as a place for neighborhood musicians to collaborate. A common table will offer residents food tastings and cooking lessons. Philadelphia radio station WURD is moving their corporate headquarters into the building and will broadcast directly from the site.

"We're not really looking to the Mann Music Center, that's for the people from the suburbs to come in," explains Brauer. "We're seeing it as a nice place to go on a limited income -- just a nice venue for smaller dollars."

Brauer has been successful in offering financial and health services, but can he transform a grocery store into a cultural and nightlife destination for Parkside? Hudson seems to think so.

"People are excited," she enthuses. "This is going to be a new day. We can walk and have ourselves a nice cozy pace, listen to jazz, have a glass of wine. We have no place in the neighborhood where we can do that."

On the Ground is made possible by the Knight Foundation, an organization that supports transformational ideas, promotes quality journalism, advances media innovation, engages communities and fosters the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit knightfoundation.org.

Follow all our work #OnTheGroundPhilly via twitter (@flyingkitemedia) and Instagram (@flyingkite_ontheground).

BRANDON ALCORN is the Operations Manager for Rebuilding Together Philadelphia and a freelance writer whose work has recently appeared in NatureThe New Republic and Slate. Follow him on Twitter at @b_alcorn.
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