The Boxcar Grocer
The Boxcar Grocer is a new addition to the Castleberry Hill section of Atlanta. Photo credit: Candace Y.A. Montague

Nestled in the Castleberry Hill section of Atlanta is a quaint neighborhood divided between yesteryear and today. Among the new additions to the area is a bright, modern corner store that sells all-natural produce and products for residents who seek organic alternatives.  It’s called The Boxcar Grocer and on Peters Street SW, it is the only food store available.

Co-owners Alison and Alphonso Cross migrated from San Francisco to the Atlanta area to open this food store in a building owned by their father.  The brother and sister team felt that fresh food was important enough to bring to the neighborhood and sacrificed almost everything to make it happen. The question was whether or not there was enough of a demand for fresh food options to sustain their business in an area that is making slow progress towards revitalization. The Crosses believed so, and they found a way to use local farmers to keep the business afloat.

Answering the call

Alison and Alphonso Cross knew they wanted to open a food store in a vacant building, but couldn’t find a grocer that was willing to do it. The area was deemed to have no value and investors thought that black communities wouldn’t support such a store. The Crosses thought differently.

“They kept coming at us with more barbershops and beauty salons,” said Alison Cross in an interview. “The community doesn’t need another barbershop.  So we decided if we are going to move across the country to make a grocery store it’s going to be a killer kind of store. It’s going to be something that can be replicated in other communities.”

Their brainstorming led to The Boxcar Grocer, a convenience store branded with the African-American consumer in mind. The next step was to find black farmers who would offer the organic produce that they wanted to sell. However, the technological divide made it difficult to make connections with them because many of them are not on the Internet.

Alison Cross described the business community in Atlanta as insular and said they lacked the appropriate contacts needed to make deals. Eventually, they made a few connections and the store opened in November 2011.

Is there a market for a black-owned convenience store?

In many African-American communities across the country, corner and convenience stores outnumber full-service grocery stores, and black-owned businesses struggle for support from the very same community.

According to Maggie Anderson, author of Our Black Year, black businesses only get two percent of the one trillion dollars of African-American buying power. In the beginning of 2000, there were 19 black-owned grocery stores in the United States.

By 2011, the Kellogg Business School conducted a survey and found evidence of only three black-owned grocery stores. It is a struggle to attain and keep black dollars coming into black-owned stores especially without a national brand and with competition from larger retailers.