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Alphonzo Cross
The Boxcar Grocer
May 29, 2012
It won't surprise you that our favorite form of retail therapy is grocery shopping. When we travel, we love to find the local food market in a strange new town. Perusing the unique products on its shelves is like a treasure hunt, one that makes us reluctant to go back home. Alphonzo and Allison, the siblings behind the Boxcar Grocer in Atlantic, Georgia, are just the type of folks we'd hope to run into while meandering the aisles. Their vision for a new kind of corner store is one that we look forward to seeing more of, all across the country.

When did you know that you wanted to work in food?

If 5 years ago you had told my sister or me that we would be running a healthy grocery store in Atlanta, I would have laughed.  At no point in our picky-eating lives have we ever thought of ourselves as "foodies" or especially healthy eaters, but we did grow up with home-cooked meals every night and a good nutritional foundation established by our parents.  The "aha" moment really just came about when Castleberry Hill and the surrounding neighborhoods lost the local Publix and there was no place close-by for residents to purchase healthy or fresh foods.  Once this happened we realized that there was a clear and apparent need for a store like ours that we believed would resonate with local residents.  It turns out we were right.

How did you get your current good food job?

It took us 2 years to open The Boxcar Grocer.  Through local bank financing (thanks to State Bank), lots of hard work around research & idea development (thanks to my sister, Alison), and a tremendous amount of tenacity we were able to finally open and realize the beginning of our dream.
How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?

Alison has a degree in architecture and a very natural eye for design, while I have a background in film and clothing retail.  All of our experiences, both personal & professional, have lent themselves to us creating/designing a physical space we are proud of and providing our customers & clients with an unparalleled shopping experience that gives us a foothold in the urban grocery store niche.

What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?

We began our process in the Summer of 2009, just after the market had crashed and the entire world was in a panic.  Banks were a mess, investors were scared, and the general public was feeling helpless and hopeless.  Once the business plan was completed by the Fall we started pursuing financing in the Winter and then into the following year and nothing could have been more difficult.  Avenues for financing a start-up business that were normally open to entrepreneurs like ourselves were gone and we were constantly told that we didn't know what we were doing so there was no way we could have been successful.  We were also frequently told that people of color and people who live in dense urban neighborhoods wouldn't support or shop with a local/small healthy grocery store.  We were confronted with so many walls and barriers that there were times when we thought about giving up, but what kept us going was (a) each other, as my sister and I have always had a strong relationship and we had been wanting to work on something innovative together for many years (b) we knew we were on to something.  We truly believed that this was an amazing idea that appealed to people on many levels that far exceeded any initial conversations about money.  We knew that we could make good food fun, innovative, available, and hip, while at the same time bringing attention to local farmers and wonderful vendors and turning a profit.

What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
The number one opportunity in food right now is the retail side of food distribution.  We are not physically able to solve every city's shortage of access to fresh and healthy food, so there need to be more retail outlets like The Boxcar Grocer in more cities across the US.  We definitely plan on growing and are very-near ready to work with cities in the US to bring The Boxcar Grocer to their neighborhoods with needs.  We are not exclusively about poverty stricken neighborhoods or only being in specific racial neighborhoods, but we are about being in urban neighborhoods where proper healthy food is a scarcity and people are forced to travel many miles to grocery shop.

The second largest opportunity is the urban farming side of food.  More cities need to work with people like Truly Living Well's Rashid Nuri and Growing Power's Will Allen who can take urban farming into the 21st Century in such a way that urban planning, local government agencies, and residents can work together to further food growth and distribution.  If people don't grow food, we can't sell it.

If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?

A young woman came into the store one afternoon and was looking for a local beverage we carry called Chuice.  Chuice is a great drink designed and provided by Ladell Hill.  It's a blend of fruits, vegetables, herbs, seeds, & nuts and is a great source of nutrients and energy.  Anyways, this young woman had never had it before and I gave her tons of information about it and was very patient with her as she worked through such a unique item.  30 minutes later she left the store with a small bottle and I told her to come back and let me know what she thought.  A week or two went by and she came back and couldn't say enough great things about the product and how wonderful she felt after drinking it?I work for smiles and Thank You's.
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