Lincoln grocery stores from access to diversity–and consumer preference

Story, photography and video by Evan Hummel
Click on the video below to learn what customers say about the importance of the original Russ’s Market:

Local Grocers of Lincoln
Russ’s Market on 17th and Washington, founded in 1964, is one of Lincoln’s oldest grocery stores and is part of the Independent Grocers Association. It serves a diverse working-class neighborhood and provides easy access for people in the neighborhood. But for folks in the area, it’s much more than a grocery store it’s a lifeline.  The store provides access to basic items all of us need in our everyday lives. “A lot of people that come here don’t have access to vehicles, so they walk here. If this store were to close down it would hurt a lot of people,” says Mike Smith, a regular customer at the original Russ’s.

President and CEO of B&R Stores, Pat Raybould, whose father Russ Raybould founded the store, says he understands the need for the Russ’s on 17th and Washington St., “It’s always been a very good store for us, it does quite well.  Raybould also understands how important it is that these residents have access to nutritional items, which can be difficult to come by in low-income neighborhoods.  Raybould enjoys the mix of cultures the store has, and even caters his food items to the demographics of Lincoln’s population. But Raybould also said that the store can do a better job of connecting with the neighborhood.

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Photography by Journal Star (with permission) Jane, Pat, Russ and Anita Raybould, pose for a picture at one of their independent grocery stores.

When Lincoln lost Ideal Grocery to a four-alarm fire on the early morning of May 19, it not only lost its oldest grocery store–but a staple of the community. While it’s still unclear whether the store will ever be replaced, many local grocers still remain–including Ideal’s sister store, Leon’s Food Mart, on 22nd and Winthrop Ave.  Which continues Ideal’s tradition of delivering groceries, mainly to elderly customers.

The store has been around since 1933, and prides itself on their meat selection. Leon’s Manager, Topher Vorhies, says neighborhood grocery stores offer a one-on-one experience with the customer–with many employees knowing customers by their names. Vorhies says they are able to do things major chains can’t always do. “We are even able to special order items for customers,” Vorhies said. It’s unique, but it may be becoming a lost art–especially in low-income areas. Where access to local grocers, and nutritional items can be hard to find.
Photography of Leon’s, Lincoln’s oldest surviving local grocery store

Access and ethnicity
Nationally, the trend seems to hit minority neighborhoods more than others. According to a 2009 study by the U.S Department of Agriculture found that 23.5 million Americans lack access to a grocery store within a mile of their home.
In addition, a recent multi-state study found that low-income neighborhoods had half as many stores as wealthy neighborhoods. This study also showed only eight percent of African Americans lived in a district with a supermarket, while 31 percent of whites lived in a district with a supermarket.

Another finding in the study conducted by PolicyLink, found 418 “food deserts” in rural area–a “food desert” is an area where consumers can live up to 10-miles or more from the nearest grocery store or supermarket. This accounts for nearly 20 percent of U.S. counties.

Lincoln’s demographics and neighborhood access
Lincoln’s demographics aren’t as diverse as some cities–nearly 82 percent of all resident are white, according to the latest Census Bureau. It still has many consumers who demand a diverse array of food items. Also, certain areas, like the 17th and Washington neighborhood have large communities of color– Latino, African American and Arabic populations, are more prevalent in the near south neighborhood.
It’s important for these residents to have access to nutritional food and items that fit their everyday needs. It also contributes to health.
Chart information courtesy of PolicyLink study 2000-2010

A study by PolicyLink, found that access to nutritional foods decreases peoples risk for heart disease, obesity and other diet-related diseases. Lincoln remains ahead of the curve in terms of access, with most neighborhoods within one to three miles of a grocery store, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But it’s still a challenge for those without access to a vehicle. The city of Lincoln, while trying to improve public transportation, has limited bus routes and little-to-no mass transit. That’s why proximity is key.

An effort by local grocery stores to diversify
Stores like Russ’s are also trying to be progressive in terms of inclusion as well. Raybould says:

“Instead of a cherry cutter approach, us and other independents like to cater their stores to the neighborhood.  Based on what products [the] neighborhoods like? Are they more diverse?  Do they have more Hispanic customers?  Or more African-American customers?”

For instance, due to Lincoln’s ever increasing Latino population, Raybould has looked to bring in more authentic items for Latino shoppers. Russ’s Market offers personalized customer service, without the cost of a Leon’s or Whole Foods. Many Lincoln residents in lower wage brackets, shop at these stores for “specialty items.” Russ’s is seen as a more everyday shopping center.

That’s why Raybould finds it important to provide quality products that are affordable. Leon’s serves one of Lincoln’s wealthier neighborhoods, near Sheridan Boulevard, while the original Russ’s serves Lincolnites who may not have the most disposable income. The Raybould family prides itself on catering to all walks of life. Pat Raybould points to an example of a young man in his mid-20s who came into the store. The young gentleman was so happy to see such a display of diversity that he exclaimed in the middle of the store, “this what diversity looks like.” Raybould said it was a poignant moment for him.

From co-ops to diverse hiring practices and changing demographics
Russ’s and B&R Stores, get most of their fresh items from regional co-ops. Raybould sees them as an essential part of his business. Raybould said, “We’re supplied by a co-op out of Kansas City…they’re one of the three largest ones.  It’s an extremely well run co-op…now we have stronger co-ops that are supplying, more than anytime in the last 25 years for Independent Grocers.” Raybould believes the good thing about these co-ops, is that no matter the size of the business they all have an equal share in the supplier’s company.  “I see the independents getting stronger, as the stronger gets stronger,” says Raybould.

Another challenge that Raybould faces is the demand for health foods and organic items. He admits to being behind the curveand points to Hyvee’s organic food section, as a “store within a store.” But he’s working hard with his sister Jane Raybould to incorporate more organic items. Raybould believes that a store needs to change with the times, and that goes hand-in-hand with hiring. Whether that means hiring more employees of color or buying more organic–in this case both. Raybould says he wants his staff to reflect the diverse nature of the community, and by doing that it helps him become more aware of what the community wants.

Raybould finds it important to be proactive about his business, and that includes incorporating ethnic foods and diverse hiring. Raybould isn’t indicating his business is diverse enoughbut he does indicate that as the demographic makeup changes, so to should his business. Raybould finds this practice essential for the business to grow and thrive.

While Lincoln does remain largely white, it’s demographics are changing.
According to the UNO Office of Latino/Latin American Studies, the fastest growing group are Hispanic and Latino Americans, Nebraska’s population is expected to triple from nine percent, in the last Census Bureau, to 24 percent in 2050. That’s why it is essential for businesses to account for the potential influx of these customers.

The need for a downtown grocery store
While Lincoln, may not face as many “bigger city problems,” it can still be a struggle for some residents to make it to the grocery store. For instance, the lack of full-service grocery store in the downtown or Haymarket remains a problem. Hjermstad said, “That’s something we are looking into.” Community Development Manager,Wynn Hjermstad, says access to grocery stores downtown is something the department does want, but sometimes their hands are tied. If a company refuses to sell the land or development stalls it can be hard to get a project going.

Hjermstad, personally says she enjoys shopping local, and while she prefers locally-owned, the department has little control of whether a chain or local business buys the land. But the lack of a downtown grocery store may be changing soon. In July, Whitehead Oil, announced as part of an $11 million project, a small full-service grocery store will be included, along with apartment complexes and office space in the South Haymarket. As of yet, nothing has been finalized, so that void remains–for now.

Chains, locally-owned and generational preference
While chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joes are popular among Lincoln shoppers, stores like Leon’s and Russ’s remain a Lincoln mainstay. Also, Millennials are demanding more locally-owned items from bakeries, flower shops and restaurants. But traditional grocers find themselves losing ground, with a decline of nearly 15 percent during the last decade, according to SupermarketGuru, a consumer behavior website. That’s because while Millennials are demanding more local items, they aren’t getting them from grocery stores. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of the number of farmers markets doubled from 2004 to 2014. That’s an increase of from nearly 3,700 to 8,200 farmers markets. Wynn Hjermstad says she seems to notice a steady increase in produce and fruit stands in the community. Perhaps, a sign of the demand.

These studies also indicate, that the younger generation want a sense of community in their shopping. That’s a positive sign for many local-grocers–but the question is how to they attract that niche market? Maybe, they already have.

Brigette Smith, 22, of Lincoln, says she’s shopped at the original Russ’s since she was a small child. She says the familiarity along with the smell of fresh donuts brings back memories. For her it’s a personalized experience that makes her preference a locally-owned store. But it’s not only that, people are becoming more demanding of where their food comes from. It can be harder to track at a chain.

Brigette’s father, Mike Smith, of Lincoln, says he’s shopped at Russ’s regularly since he retired, and has known of the store since he moved to Lincoln in 1970s. He said the connection with the employees and familiarity keeps him coming back. So perhaps, it’s there’s not a generational gap, in terms of preference for the local flavor?

One thing remains certain in Lincoln and the national grocery scene, there’s still demand. The USDA’s most recent study says, that traditional grocery stores sold nearly $571 billion worth of products in 2013. While the 20 biggest retailers accounted for $449.3 billion of that number, part of that being the vast numbers of these stores. Part of the struggle going forward for locally-owned stores is competing in price. But managers, like Leon’s, Vorhies, believe that they’ll always be a demand for the unique experience that neighborhood grocery stores bring with them. And Raybould, while admitting the challenges of competing with the likes of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, thinks that the familiarity with the community helps local businesses thrive. If Lincoln’s any indication, grocery stores in America are here to stay–we’ll just see how they adapt to the changes.

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