“This is the best of the coconut waters,” Jean Paul tells me. “It’s 100% fruit juice and it has pineapple juice in it, which helps clean out the liver. Plus, it’s in the fresh box, not sitting in a heavy metal container for days.”
Jean Paul Reyes owns Chu Chu Corner Store at 4th and Somerset in North Philly. The store looks like any other corner store in America. Just looking at it from the street you can almost hear the crinkle of Frito-Lays chips bags or Butterfinger bars, the fizz of Mountain Dew bottles being unscrewed. Household cleaning items fit into a back corner. And Jean Paul has a small deli fridge with a few processed meats and cheeses.
Jean Paul is 27 years old. Most of his friends own stores like his. He took over the Chu Chu store in 2011. It sits across the street from a school, and four more schools, from pre-K to high school, are within a short walking radius. His resident clientele is only about 45-65 families (corner stores are as ubiquitous as fire hydrants in the densely packed, industrial-era row-house neighborhoods of North Philly). The schools bring in the bulk of his traffic, roughly 35-50 kids each day.
The kids, like too many kids all over the country, go for the brightest, sugariest items like the little plastic barrels of water, fruit syrup, and high fructose corn syrup that the older youth call “Hugs” and the younger ones call, “Grenades.”
But Chu Chu has been part of a new corner store initiative of The Food Trust (The Food Trust) for over two years. The Food Trust’s Healthy Corner Store Initiative helps small store owners introduce fresh produce into their businesses. The Food Trust does not subsidize the produce, beyond providing the fridge to hold it. Business owners find their own distributors (Jean Paul uses Jetro/The Restaurant Depot, the same place where he buys other products like canned goods). The Food Trust has trainers and an easy-to-follow guide for business owners on how to buy, store, display, and market the produce, and how to manage a micro business plan around the sales. It’s a hands-off method that empowers the business owners to take charge and maximize profit margins. The Food Trust conducted a study to pinpoint areas of need and has since helped over 650 stores launch the program.
Jean Paul inherited the program when he bought the store, but he didn’t have to adopt it. He could have stuck with the old format for a corner store – make two-cent profits selling bags of chips, make a little more selling sodas, a little more on beer. Not deal with many perishables or fluctuating prices. Not push a healthy agenda on his customers. Not care, really.
But Jean Paul doesn’t like the idea of being the outlet for unhealthy food bought by unhealthy kids who don’t know any better and don’t have many alternatives even if they did know.
“I used to have a healthy lifestyle,” says Jean Paul. “I used to go to the gym and stay in shape. Now I work 94 hours a week. But besides that, I’ve read about all the chemicals and the GMOs in this food. The kids are the future.”
So Jean Paul has a small fridge in the back corner of the store. It holds tomatoes, greens, cilantro, onions, apples. He has avocado, mango, banana, coconut on a shelf. In a drink fridge at the front of the store, he looks for a Minute Maid juice box that’s 100% juice, rather than the more processed Capri-Suns and Kool-Aids. He’s sold out. The kids love them.
And that’s a shift. It’s easy to dismiss the corner store initiative as trivial, inconsequential, as if the store is expected to convert overnight into a produce section of Whole Foods. The tiny supply of fruits and vegetables and healthy drinks can be lost in the roiling sea of brightly colored, expensively branded, dirt-cheap packages of empty calories.
That’s where Jean Paul’s passion for knowing his stores’ products and for making a profit collide with The Food Trust’s passion for connecting the dots between consumers and retailers. The Food Trust conducts nutrition lessons in the local schools and then carries it over into the store itself with healthy food scavenger hunts so the students learn where the healthy food hides. On the drink fridge, The Food Trust displays bright, kid-friendly signs listing the calories of certain drinks. Same for the rows of potato chips. Students begin to see the store in healthy-eating code, a vital pushback to the entrenched commercial marketing of Frito-Lays and Coke.
And they talk to Jean Paul. He talks to them. He tells them about things like coconut water mixed with pineapple being better than the dubious version that is only 80% fruit juice. He offers bananas at three for one dollar. Same with potatoes. Always the same price, regardless of market fluctuations.
That’s the power of the corner store. Jean Paul’s constant presence in the store might not be great for his fitness level, but few other retail outlets exist in America where the store owner is right there, behind the counter, able to tell you why he decided, after much research, to stock his shelves with that drink box versus the other option. Or where you can tell him you want more pineapple and he can bring some in. This is a relationship that doesn’t happen between big-box grocery store checkout clerks. Jean Paul wants your business, he wants a healthy community, and he has the power to make positive options available.