Sodexo just opened a full-service grocery store in a food desert. Pontiac Street Market opened its doors on Nov. 6 in Fort Wayne Ind., in partnership with a hospital located in a part of town that’s considered a food desert. The goal behind the initiative, according to Wesley Oburn, client executive for Sodexo, was to spread access to fresh food.
“Well, I think it fits really our mission of improving the quality of life of the communities we serve. So, this is a great example of that. And really to show our commitment, we're operating this pro bono,” he said. “So, the mission really is to provide accessibility and at cost or at least low-cost healthy food items to the community.”
This initiative is a first for Sodexo, said Oburn, who noted that the team was reliant on community feedback during the planning stages. The team held several community engagement events to ask community members what they would like to see from the grocery store.
“The intent is for this facility to be an anchor to help stimulate health outcomes, employment opportunities and help bring other businesses to the area as well,” said Oburn.
The effort also had support from the city, which got the project off the ground and began looking for partnerships to open a grocery store. That’s when they reached out to Parkview Health, a Sodexo-operated healthcare system.
From there, the Covid-19 pandemic pushed back development, and Pontiac Street Market officially opened this fall.
A look at the store
Pontiac Street Market offers a robust produce department, fresh meats, an array of grocery items and fresh sandwiches made in house through Sodexo’s brand Sub Connection.
Shoppers can also participate in health and wellness programming, such as grocery store tours on how to execute healthy shopping. In addition, recipe cards on display throughout the store showcase creative recipes diners can make using healthy ingredients. The store also accepts nutritional assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
The health and wellness programming doesn’t stop at the four walls of the store, either. The team has created an active social media presence where it shares nutritional tips and recipes.
“We get that information from our dietitians,” said Laqueisha Brown, general manager at Pontiac Street Market. “Our goal is education, so we at least try to post two to three times a week. Sometimes [it’s] a fun fact or something educational around nutrition.”
Another big goal behind the store is to bring in local organizations, said Brown. One such partnership has brought an ATM to the store, with a minimal fee.
In addition, the team places a strong focus on helping community organizations. For example, one local agency provides restaurant vouchers to seniors, but many of the seniors end up having to travel at least 15 minutes to redeem those vouchers, said Oburn. Sodexo has since partnered with the organization so participants can redeem the vouchers at the grocery store, right in their own neighborhood.
Within the first week, the grocery store started serving roughly 400 people a day.
So far, customer response has been overwhelmingly positive, the team agrees.
“They’re just very gracious because before there was only a gas station in the area or convenience stores so they didn't have access to fresh meat, fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Oburn. “So they are really excited that we are here and [we are] also listening to some of the things that they want in our store.”
Challenges and vision for the future
Inflation was one challenge the team was forced to combat during the opening process. Oburn noted this was especially important since they’re trying to offer accessible food at a low cost.
“Just construction costs and materials costs and lead times,” said Oburn. “And then of course, when we opened, our mission is to provide at cost or low-cost foods. We have to combat inflation in our strategy on that as well.”
Oburn said the team is doing okay on labor, especially as it continues to recruit within its zip codes.
“Creating employment opportunities within this area of the city is important to us as well,” he said.
Leaders of the store have turned to the team for feedback and help along the way, especially as a number of them live within the community themselves.
“But the key to that is that we’ve just been engaging [the] community,” said Brown. “Also, a lot of our employees, I will say all of them actually, except for maybe like one, lives within walking distance of the store. So, they have been great to get feedback and give us feedback from a community perspective.”
Moving forward, the team has several community engagement initiatives in the works, including the development of a learning kitchen. The next phase of the project will include constructing an upstairs to the store, which will house the learning kitchen and community meeting rooms.