St. Louis Metro Market, the mobile grocery store created to bring fresh food to neighborhoods with limited access, is adjusting to lessons learned during its first year in operation.
While the nonprofit ended the year in the red, co-founder Colin Dowling said there are lots of positive signs that it will soon be sustainable.
“There’s been a lot of growing pains and a lot of good lessons learned that we’re hoping to take into next year and really utilize to deepen our impact,” Dowling said. “Running a grocery store — specifically a grocery store on wheels — there’s a lot of moving parts, no pun intended, that we didn’t anticipate.”
The idea behind Metro Market was to succeed where traditional grocery stores have failed. The model is to sell food at cost in grocery stores while off-setting operating expenses by selling their products at retail prices at corporate locations.
As Dowling put it: “You kind of have to know going into (food deserts) that you’re going to be losing money.”
But sales at corporate sites weren’t as high as expected this year.
“While our corporate day-to-day sales revenue wasn’t quite what we were hoping for, we kind of bridged that gap with a lot of personal donations that we weren’t even really soliciting,” Dowling said. “What we’ve found is that we’ve created this business or this brand that people are really excited about (and) people are really interested in supporting in different ways.”
One new way of supporting Metro Market: a farm-to-table restaurant fundraiser called Turnip Tuesdays.
“Some of those are just flat percentage of revenue type situations, and some of them are more intimate, sit-down, multi-course dinner offerings,” Dowling said.
To help with sales next year, Dowling plans to offer more ready-made products.
“For people to shop on a bus at specific times I think is asking them, in a lot of cases, to do something drastically different than how they typically buy their groceries,” he explained. “Whether that’s at corporate sites or food desert sites, I think we need to meet those customers somewhere in the middle there.”
Despite the lower-than-expected corporate sales, Dowling said Metro Market had a good reception and is on track to be in good financial standing going forward.
He said signs were especially promising in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood, where Metro Market visited consistently for the full 25 week season. Later in the year, the mobile grocery store also started showing up in the Hyde Park neighborhood.
“The grassroots growth of the amount of customers and the amount of repeat customers that we were getting by the end of the year was substantial,” Dowling said, adding that by the end of the year the mobile grocery store was selling twice as much at neighborhood stops as it did at corporate sites.
Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.