Stockbox: The Shipping Container Oasis in Food Deserts
08 Jan, 2012
The term food desert describes a district in a city where fresh, healthy food cannot be found. It is estimated that 23 million people live in such areas. Since the nearest store is usually the corner bodega that carries packaged snacks, a variety of sodas and beer and a few highly processed food items, it is not surprising that diet-related illnesses soar in these food deserts. Two Seattle-area visionaries, fresh out of grad school, are implementing a food oasis—an “instant store” that is quickly set up and brings badly needed fresh food to these neighborhoods.
This solution is called Stockbox Grocers, and it is the brainchild of founder Jacqueline Gjurgevich and her business partner Carrie Ferrence. For Jacqueline, Stockbox came about as a bit of a life makeover. “Right after college graduation, I moved to Washington, DC,” Jacqueline told Organic Connections. “I worked for Marriott International for nine years, and did sales, events and revenue management. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t super fulfilling; I just wanted to do more with my career than push revenue for a large multinational corporation.”
With her fiancé at the time, Jacqueline moved to Seattle and began anew. “A couple years in, I discovered BGI [Bainbridge Graduate Institute] and met some amazing people,” she said. “I was exposed to ideas that really appealed to me, and pushed me to discover what my right livelihood should be.”
Jacqueline enrolled at BGI, and it was there that Stockbox had its beginnings. “Stockbox Grocers was originally a grad school project,” Jacqueline recounted. “In our last year, we were tasked with creating an entrepreneurship enterprise that would show $1 million in triple-bottom-line revenue* within five years. Our team came together around the idea of wanting to improve food access. At first we looked at mobile food as an option, but there are a lot of limitations to that, and we wanted to build something permanent in a community. We basically took the wheels off a mobile food van and created Stockbox Grocers.”
Stockbox Grocers is a miniature grocery store arranged inside a reclaimed shipping container—the sort you see being hoisted onto ships for long transport. The store offers essential grocery items and fresh produce.
In order to get a better idea of how they should operate, Jacqueline and Carrie set up their first prototype in the Delridge neighborhood of Seattle. “Our prototype store was in a mobile mini-office,” Jacqueline recalled. “We didn’t actually have a shipping container, but it was shipping-container-like in that it was eight by twenty feet, and we were able to pack it with over 300 different items.”
In the eight weeks they operated the prototype, they learned a great deal. The first thing was how to convince a potential customer that this was a store and it would benefit them. “People really seemed to like the concept once they understood what it was,” said Jacqueline. “It’s not every day that you shop for groceries inside a place like that. We did our best to make it look like a nice retail space by putting signs on the outside that listed items that were in the store, and arranging things sensibly inside. We’d invite people in, even to just come and look. We had great feedback.”
They also needed to be sensitive to the items they were stocking. “As far as inventory goes, we were able to respond to what customers were looking for,” Jacqueline related. “We had a first round of inventory, and then just became flexible and adaptable to the requirements of the community.”
The key element that Jacqueline and her partner learned, though, was the importance of making friends in the community. “My business partner and I were the two that worked in the store every day, so we were able to develop very close relationships with people,” Jacqueline said. “Being in the parking lot of an apartment complex, you see the same people all the time coming and going from work, so it was nice to be able to create those relationships. We were able to swap recipe stories, help with suggestions for dinner and introduce people to food that they were maybe not always accustomed to. It’s about building relationships on a very personal level, which you can’t do in a large grocery store, and people were excited about that. Our target is to focus on women and families—to make a safe environment for people to shop in and just feel comfortable.”
Of course, the source of food for the store is important. “For the prototype, we worked with a couple of distributors and suppliers that deal with independent grocery stores,” Jacqueline continued. “Toward the end, we started working with a few local farms to get items like pears and apples and other seasonal fruit. Our mission is to expand into a more regionalized food system.”
Now that the prototype is done, the interest has become keen from many quarters—and their first permanent installation is in the near future. “We’ve received attention from people all over the country identifying with our mission and what the Stockbox story is,” Jacqueline reported. “They could visualize it in their community, whether it is in another urban environment or whether it’s rural, or anywhere in between. People are asking for access to good food in their communities. Once we get the first permanent store on the ground and prove that our model really works, we’re going to be able to deploy it throughout the nation. We don’t want to just be in south Seattle; we want to be all over the country.”
* triple bottom line—also known as “people, planet, profit” or the three pillars—is an expanded measure of business success that, in addition to straight financial profit, also takes into account the enterprise’s treatment of labor and its benefit to the environment.
For more information on Stockbox Grocers, visit www.stockboxgrocers.com.