Thinking inside the box

From Hawaiian-shirted “captains” at Trader Joe’s to milled flax seed with goji berry powder at Whole Foods, Seattle food shoppers have a jungle of choices. For some neighborhoods, however, it’s a desert out there. Stockbox Grocers to the rescue.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, about 10% of Americans live in “food deserts,” low-income neighborhoods with limited access to supermarkets. Without that access to fresh ingredients, people tend to consume more of the high-energy snacks and fast foods that dominate the urban landscape. If Carrie Ferrence and Jacqueline Gjurgevich have their way, Stockbox Grocers will give underserved communities far better food choices.

The concept is simple. The Stockbox store is “a miniature grocery tucked inside a reclaimed shipping container,” selling a variety of grocery staples and fresh foods, and dropped into a neighborhood parking lot.

The prototype store opened last autumn in the Delridge neighborhood of Seattle. The need was there, but the partners Ferrence and Gjurgevich (MBA graduates in sustainable business from Bainbridge Graduate Institute) had to put in extensive legwork and outreach to gain traction: meetings with community groups, flyers, even waves of encouragement to wary area residents who walked around the periphery of the parking lot on opening day.

“Within a few days,” Ferrence observed, “people wandered in, from 10-year-old kids to old ladies, and there was an immediate spark—they got the concept.” Community residents bought up the fare described as “good food,” and requested even more fresh food and produce.

Stockbox was a second place winner in the 2011 UW Business Plan Competition (BPC) and received another $25,000 in seed funding through the Herbert B. Jones Foundation’s milestone program. Ferrence and Gjurgevich also raised money through KickStarter, an online platform that allowed the founders to approach friends and family and others looking to invest in a worthwhile and commercially viable endeavor in a social, non-threatening way. In only 45 days, that effort brought 192 backers and an additional $20,000.

The Stockbox solution to the food desert attracted national attention from local press to environmental news site Grist to the New York Times to the White House blog. Ferrence and Gjurgevich now have a new design for the next version of their 200-400 sq ft container stores, and they plan to open two locations in Seattle in 2012.

Their fans are hungry for them to succeed.

UPDATE June 2012: They’re opening their first neighborhood grocery in South Park in August and were recognized as 2012 Echoing Green Fellows.

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