African-American artisanal foods: Black fine food producers mix quality, community and commerce

At first glance, Alison and Alphonso Cross, the brother and sister team behind The Boxcar Grocer, based in Atlanta, seem like unlikely candidates for the food business. Alphonso has a background in fashion; Alison studied architecture and worked as a video editor. “The funny thing is that we are not foodies at all,” Alison told theGrio. “If you had walked up to anyone in our family three years ago and told them that we would end up opening any sort of business revolving around food, they would have laughed. Our grandmothers are most likely laughing in their graves. This work was born more out of a passion around food justice that built upon our individual experiences as having worked in philanthropy, design, advertising, and retail. We really wanted to take these assets we had and apply them to our community in a way that people with our backgrounds don’t normally do.”

While The Boxcar Grocer does not create artisanal foods, the grocery store is a mecca for food purity supporting the mission of the creators to make organic, high-quality foods available for everyone. To facilitate this, the Crosses have set up six vendor booths inside their store, which they call Pop Food; these stands serve as combination pop-up restaurants/farmers’ markets. In addition to the quality edibles stocked on store shelves, the Pop Food stands give neighboring blacks access to fresh, creative eating alternatives.

“It helps encourage our customers to know who makes their food and allows them to get a wider variety of healthy options into the neighborhood without having to do all the work of sourcing and cooking up meals,” Alison said.

Of the products on their shelves, Alison added, “We sell Chuice, Cu’i Watermelon Drink, Beauty H2O, Just Add Honey, and Eden Easy Beds to name a few African-American owned brands. All of these products have healthy properties. Chuice is one of our fastest-selling products. It is a non-pasteurized nutritional meal supplement that contains 45 essential enzymes and nutrients to balance out the system and provide energy for the body. It’s called Chuice because it’s kind of a juice you have to chew.”

These local vendors are all supported by the siblings’ company, who have been equally supported by the community in return. From the beginning, The Boxcar Grocer has formed partnerships with area black-owned farms like Truly Living Well, HABESHA, Good Shepherd Community Church, and Metro Atlanta Urban Farm. This served to expand their customer base quickly. “They have strong reputations for high quality farming. When people [learn that] we carry their produce and make our sandwiches with as much as their food as we can, they smile at how we all support each other.”

The Crosses say the response to the store has been overwhelmingly positive. “People don’t usually put stores like this in communities that are predominately African-American. Everyone has been excited about our presence, but also excited by the quality of the food we offer,” Alison confirmed.

Their long-term goal? To have at least five locations in every major city.  “This time last year, no one in Atlanta knew who we were except our family. Now, there are mutterings all over town about our innovative model and how cool our store is. And this is just the beginning!” Alison said.

“Alphonzo and I really enjoy challenging people’s preconceived notions,” she added. “Whether it’s food or clothing or through different media, we enjoy dichotomies. People think they can make judgments about who eats what and who is most likely to frequent our store based on what people look like. Our store is living proof that, given the right opportunity, more people than you think will eat organic. The option has just not been offered to our community in a way that is specific to us.

“Boxcar is the link,” Alison concluded. “We love thinking up solutions to issues. I guess this all points to how much we like working as a team. We’ve always been this way. We just never had the chance to wrap our minds around something we were both passionate about and made it happen.”

The Boxcar Grocer is located at 249 Peters Street, SW in Atlanta, Georgia. The phone number is (404) 883-3608.

For more information, find Boxcar Grocer on Facebook or Twitter, and check out their website. Then take a few more moments to learn about two Brooklyn women making good with a hand-crafted drink that is healthy and delicious.