Icing on the kake
By Richard Turcsik
A ShopRite built on the site of Tastykake’s landmark commercial bakery is reviving a moribund section of Philadelphia. “Hey Mom! What’s for dinner?” If Mom shops at the new ShopRite of Fox Street in Philadelphia her shout back might be, “fire gilled chicken, in-store fried fish, boneless turkey chops, Jamaican jerk chicken, fresh collard greens and a made-from-scratch sweet potato pie for dessert.” That is because the ShopRite of Fox Street, operated by Brown’s Super Stores, is putting a new spin on the retailer’s famous slogan by tailoring its product assortment and services to a “first of the month” local community that is largely African-American, low income, with a high percentage of Muslims. Store services include an in-store American Heritage Federal Credit Union geared to customers too poor to maintain regular bank accounts, a medical clinic that takes in those without insurance and an associate who works with customers to help them get food stamps, welfare and other entitlements. In the meat department there are certified halal meats, and bulk buys and thin cuts to help shoppers stretch their budget while still incorporating protein into their diets. The produce department stocks a wide array of conventional and organic items. An international department features aisles of Mexican, Jamaican, West African and other specialty foods to service the neighborhood’s many immigrant communities, and the in-store bakery has become known for its sweet potato pies, bundt cakes, cookies and muffins. Everything is housed in a beautifully decorated, energy-efficient, fancy looking store that on the surface looks like it belongs in a ritzy Main Line suburb rather than one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods. “People tell me that this store seems more upscale than they would imagine,” says Jeffrey Brown, president & CEO of Brown’s Super Stores, the Westville, N.J.-based operator of 11 ShopRites in Philadelphia and environs. “And yet I think this is the lowest income neighborhood of all the ShopRites.” The store has become a success—sales average $1 million per week—by listening to customers before, during and after construction. “We have a very much customized solution for the people of this community,” Brown says. “This is a store that is predominantly African-American shopped and their families primarily came from the South. In the South they love sweet potatoes so we have a whole Sweet Potato Bakery department.” While the store opened last August, Brown had set his sight on the Allegheny West/Nicetown-Tioga neighborhoods several years ago—per request. “Communities come to us,” Brown says. “They know our work in Philadelphia and they come to us and say, ‘Can you put one of your stores in my neighborhood? You are the only one we want.’” Brown initially looked into putting a store in the old Budd Co., a massive 70-acre complex of brick factories that made passenger rail cars and has sat abandoned since 1987. “The Budd plant had complications,” Brown says. “It was built in the old days and has huge concrete basements that would just cost too much money to remove. There are train tracks running through it and that really complicated things. I told the people that when we do it, it is going to be right. We’re not going to do it halfway.” That right opportunity came up in 2010 when the 30-acre Tasty Baking Co. site across the street, where Philadelphia’s Tastykake cupcakes, pies and Krimpets had been churned out since 1927 became available when Tasty moved to new digs at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. “We started working to see who could be the developer,” Brown says. That turned out to be U.S. Realty Associates of Ardmore, Pa., which worked with Brown and the local SEPTA transit agency to incorporate a bus stop in the parking lot, a key feature since most area residents do not have cars. Black Barbie cakes When customers enter the store the first thing they see is a large glass trophy case in the vestibule filled with examples of decorated cakes from the bakery department, including several designed after African-American Barbie dolls. “We redo their dresses for each season,” Brown says. “This cake is $59.99 and is a good seller. Ladies will bring us a Barbie dress and we try to copy it. This is not something one would expect in an inner city store.” An extensive produce department is not commonplace in the inner city either, but ShopRite has one. “We have an upscale produce presentation,” Brown says. “We found that it is really appreciated in their neighborhood. It has done really, really well and I think part of that is just from taking our game up from a merchandising standpoint.” Across from produce the foodservice department is on fire—literally. Customers line up throughout the day at a kiosk to order a meal of Brown’s Authentic Fire Grilled Chicken. Behind a glass partition chickens are roasting on an open grill and then stacked up in two piles in a display area that is emptied as soon as it is filled. “I got this idea from H-E-B, but we put our own twist on it,” Brown says. “Our staff butterflies a whole chicken, seasons it overnight with a spicy dry rub, and all day long you see the smoke from them cooking it. There is smoke and scenery. It is theater and it is an experience—and it has not affected the sales of our rotisserie chickens.” A small outpost of Chickie’s & Pete’s Express—a famous Philadelphia crab house that sells wings and cheesesteaks—is next to the chicken counter. Next is the service deli, where in addition to name-brand and Black Bear private label luncheon meats, Brown’s Authentic store-baked hams, pork loins and turkey breasts are prominently featured, along with a wide assortment of Brown’s Authentic homemade salads, featuring carrot raisin, fire grilled chicken, shrimp and loaded potato, to name a few. “Our customers know that when they see ‘Brown’s Authentic’ that means we made it in-store,” Brown says. “All of these salads are made in the store, which means we are aware of what goes into them and we can tell the customer the ingredients if they have an allergy or follow dietary guidelines, like kosher or halal.” The seafood department occupies a prime spot in the store—the rear corner—and it deserves it because sales are “huge,” according to Brown. “This is maybe five times the volume of a normal seafood department,” he says. “It is one of our specialties and we bring in fish from the countries where our customers come from.” Items can be fried, baked or steamed on the premises and there are other unusual features, such as the waterfall tank filled with live tilapia. “What I am trying to do is make it more than just buying food,” Brown says. “I am trying to create a little experience.” That experience is really seen in the adjacent meat department, which runs along the back wall. For starters, there is a self-service Halal Zabiha meat counter featuring various cuts of plain and marinated chicken, beef hot dogs, ground turkey and beef cuts. “Everything is packaged so we can keep the department open the same hours as the store because once it is pre-packaged it no longer needs supervision,” Brown says. “All of the vendors that we picked and our assortment were collaborated with the local imams. I don’t know if a lot of my peers want to go into the poorest mosque and work out things with imams, but we enjoyed doing that.” Across the aisle, a coffin case features 7- to 15-pound bags of popular cuts of regular meat and chicken, pre-priced at $10.00 and $25.00. “A lot of people with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) think about planning out the month and this is a useful tool for them because we give them a discount,” Brown says. The next section of the case is filled with what Brown calls “a really cool innovation”—thin-sliced meats, including ox tails, short ribs, Angus pepper steak, Certified Angus butter steaks, turkey breast cutlets, chicken breast and boneless pork. “To help people manage their budget—and their calories—we offer a lot of popular items that are not the usual thickness,” Brown says. “When you lay out your plate it looks full, but it is half the calories and half the money.” The corner of the coffin case is the chop shop, filled with thick-cut plain and seasoned turkey and chicken “chops.” “We found that there is a lot of intermarriage, or someone used to be Baptist and is now Muslim and wants a pork chop but cannot have pork,” Brown says. “So we have a variety of different ways to make a ‘pork chop’ dish without using pork.” Going international Across from meat is ShopRite’s International Foods store-within-a-store featuring a broad assortment of international dry groceries, frozen foods, refrigerated foods, nonfoods and HBC items. Included are assortments for halal, Mexican, Central American, Caribbean, Haitian and West African consumers. “We sell cookware because if you are on a rice-based diet you use different cookware,” Brown says. “We have religious candles. Muslims are not supposed to ingest alcohol so we have a whole line of health and beauty care that has no alcohol in it. We really thought about how we could bring more value and solve problems for people.” Further down the grocery department is the Wall of Values. “It is sort of our signature thing,” Brown says. “It is attractive with slatted walls. We look for opportunities that make sense for each particular store. We don’t program this corporately. The store decides on how to bring value to our customers. It is very flexible,” he says. Brown is also proud of the store’s energy savings. “This store is 100% LED or induction lit—every single bulb inside and out,” he says. “It has been designed to consume a lot less electricity than older supermarkets.” That is also true in the frozen food department where the entire department is behind doors. Each one is numbered—all 130 of them. “We have a guide you can pick up that tells you where everything is,” Brown says. Up front, across from the courtesy counter, is the Health Suite, featuring a traditional ShopRite Pharmacy along with a Q Care medical clinic, a partnership between The Family Practice & Counseling Network, and Brown’s nonprofit Uplift Solutions. “It is a health clinic that is a Federally Qualified Healthcare Center (FQHC). FQHCs are compensated for people that don’t have insurance, so they can see a person without insurance for as low as $20 per visit,” Brown says. The area also includes an office that is home to the store’s dietician, and on Mondays and Wednesdays Jean Evans, Brown’s benefits assistance counselor. “I assist people with benefits, like getting food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, property tax rebates and voter registration,” Evans says. “The government has $57 million [in entitlements] lying there and so I try to make the people aware of it and accessible to them.” She tells the story of one customer, 69 years old, who was incarcerated for 10 years, who she helped get Medicare and food stamps. “He now has healthcare and food, whereas he didn’t have that before. He is now a loyal customer. He says, ‘Jean, I wouldn’t go anywhere else but ShopRite,’” Evans says. Brown’s ShopRite’s company slogan is “Bring Joy To The Lives of The People We Serve.” Checking out the smiles of the people helped by Ms. Evans, along with the other shoppers and associates on Fox Street, it is easy to see how those words have never rung more true. Centre of attention When U.S. Realty Associates decided to redevelop the old Tasty Baking Co. site into the Bakers Centre shopping center the choice of an operator to anchor the flagship supermarket spot was a no-brainer. “When we got involved in this project we said we wanted the best urban operator and that was Jeff Brown with Wakefern,” says Gregory R. Bianchi, vice president, at Ardmore, Pa.-based U.S. Realty Associates. “He is the best urban operator in Philadelphia, and from what I understand, probably the best urban operator in the country. “Jeff is so entrenched and so involved in the community,” Bianchi says. “He has a master plan two or three years out for each project. He begins with a whole slew of community meetings and job fairs and gets everybody ready.” That is why ShopRite was chosen over the 123-year-old hometown Acme Markets, the supermarket most associated with the City of Brotherly Love. “Under new management, Acme is coming back and has really turned the corner, but for a 10-year period Acme was still,” Bianchi says. “As developers we weren’t interested. A company is only as good as what its stores do in volume, the traffic it generates, the number of visitors it gets.” U.S. Realty tore down the old warehouse and manufacturing buildings on the 30-acre parcel but retained the iconic multi-level circa 1927 Tasty headquarters building across the railroad tracks that cut through the center of the site. Later this year it is slated to be redeveloped for institutional, education or non-profit uses. Choosing Brown’s ShopRite as the main anchor did turn out to be a sure bet. Bakers Centre is 97% leased, with tenants that include Ross Dress For Less, Restaurant Depot, Wendy’s and Radio Shack. “Bakers Centre is turning out to be such a success, not only for the curb appeal of the community, but for the fact that all of the retailers there are doing such tremendous business,” Bianchi says. Wall of value One of the most striking features of ShopRite of Fox Street is the huge mural lining the outside wall alongside Fox Street. It shows a signature yellow ShopRite bag spilling out a cornucopia of produce—pineapple, bananas, carrots, squash, garlic and passion fruit to name a few. The mural is just one of the many things Brown’s Super Stores DBA ShopRite has done to endear itself to the Allegheny West/Nicetown-Tioga neighborhoods. “We engaged with the community in a really big way to help design the store and we asked the community if they were interested in having a mural. They said they were,” says Jeff Brown, president & CEO of Westville, N.J.-based Brown’s Super Stores. Prior to the store opening, Brown’s commissioned two artists to do renderings. The renderings were blown up to a large size and the community voted on which one it liked. “They chose this mural,” Brown says. “I liked it too because this was an area that was a food desert. The mural is all produce and this was a place that you couldn’t buy produce. It is symbolic of the turnaround.” Brown says underprivileged kids from the nearby St. James School helped paint the mural.