Though less than five miles from a gleaming downtown, north Minneapolis is one of the country’s largest food deserts, as defined by the USDA, and has been beset over the years by racial tensions, high unemployment and disinvestment. Though many of its residents qualify for the federal Women, Infant and Children (WIC) benefits supporting healthy eating, WIC redemption rates in neighborhoods like Webber Park fall well below what the need would indicate.
The phenomenon has long puzzled organizations like Pillsbury United Communities, a 135-year-old Minneapolis nonprofit focused on building healthier environments in underserved communities. “You would think,” says Vanan Murugesan, Pillsbury’s director of design and innovation, “that with money being provided by the federal government to incentivize folks to eat healthier, why is that not being fully utilized to the extent that that it should be?”
Murugesan says that conversations with residents of Webber Park reveals that food shopping was a difficult and sometimes humiliating process. With few options in the area to acquire healthy foods, it was not uncommon to encounter residents whose food shopping habits consisted of boarding a city bus with an empty suitcase and traveling 45 minutes to and from suburban-style supermarkets. Many others were in the habit of shopping where it was most convenient for them – convenience stores and fast food outlets – where selection was limited, prices were high, and offerings that tended to lack nutritional value.
“We found out the process was dehumanizing and stigmatizing,” Murugesan says.
Although Pillsbury over the years had focused on other potential solutions—including a mobile WIC shop that traveled to needy neighborhoods—the group ultimately decided that if the kind of store the community needed didn’t exist, it would just have to build one.
New Life for a Dead Site
North Market opened in December at the site of a former Kowalski’s supermarket in Webber Park that had been a vacant for a decade. Funding the 20,000-square-foot store was a social enterprise involving a team of founding donors including city and state agencies; the distributor Supervalu; local food companies like General Mills and Cargill; and the local creative design agency Knock. Pillsbury United Communities runs the store as a non-profit.
Getting the Message Right
What further distinguishes North Market, Murugesan says, is a focus on providing neighborhood residents the same attention to service afforded shoppers in wealthier communities.
“What we did differently is tried to pay attention to the consumer aspect,” he says. “A grocery store customer in a well-off neighborhood has the same needs, but they’re presented with different options, and how they talk about it is very different. What we tried to do was make sure that we get the message right and understand their wants and needs. It was very important for us that this store did not look like a charity store, a woe-is-me store.”
Knock’s VP of Brand Experience Reggie Reyes says the store was designed around a “manifesto”— which appears prominently on a sign near the entrance—reflecting local customer research, anchoring a store that also serves as a community gathering place and health hub.
Reyes, a former Target store designer, describes his approach to designing North Market as “taking concept research insights and creating real meaning to them in the physical experience.”
Unique features of the store include a large community room near the front entrance for community meetings, group classes like Zumba and cooking demonstrations; and an outpost of the North Memorial Health Care, which isn’t a clinic, Murugesan explains, but a wellness center staffed with dieticians who can help customers with questions about healthy food.
Unity, Community, Energy
The striking store design utilizes a vibrant orange and white color scheme. Orange was chosen both to distinguish North Market from the blues, reds and greens prominent among competitors, but also because it has a strong resonance with African-American and Hispanic shoppers, Reyes (left, with Vanan Murugesan) notes: “It's about unity, community and energy.”
Moments of Engagement
Distinct design icons help to enliven areas like service deli and meat departments that create “moments of engagement” in the store—but also continue behind closed doors. The intensity of the design is purposefully turned up in the bathrooms, Reyes explains, with the idea of providing shoppers with “selfie moments.”
Innovation in Community
Eight months into its existence, North Market sales haven’t been quite up to plan, Murugesan confesses, but adds that merchandising, pricing and marketing are evolving to meet community needs while Pillsbury learns the intricacies of operating a store. And sales, he noted, are but one of North Markets’ goals.
“When you think about store of the store of the future, you hear a lot about technology being the innovation,” says Reyes. “For this store, its really about innovation in community. And dollars-per-square foot may not be the ultimate measure of this. It’s really about community building, engagement and establishing an experience.”