This past summer at their eclectic butcher shop in North Aurora, Mkale and Kwame Warner created a prayer box for submissions by customers.
It has proven wildly popular so far. Customers scribble out a note of hope for a relative or friend while the jazz music plays and the Warners bustle to package anything from bargain chicken breasts to oxtails.
And lately the Warners have been letting fly with a few prayers of their own. They are in the market for some added space, and some capital to build it out, that would propel their dreams of bringing healthier food to an entire neighborhood.
Their hopes will play out right here at Good Eatin’, amid the aging, wheezing cold cases, somewhere between the tiger shrimp and the St. Louis-cut ribs. The tirelessly upbeat Warners are ready for the challenge; their three years of hard work establishing a foothold in an economically mixed neighborhood have taught them they can’t force what the customers will buy. But they believe there’s an unmet demand for greens, fruits, potatoes, corn and the kind of cooking know-how that can turn a whole, uncut chicken into a healthy, bargain meal.
“The thing we appreciate about our business is the chance we get to hear our customers and be part of their lives,” Kwame said. “We’re making a difference. It’s not just about the meat.”
The Warners are accustomed to looking at their ventures with a mixture of cold numbers and warm optimism. Kwame was in the real estate business when the deep recession of 2008 sent the housing market spinning.
Searching for a new business, he combined his love of barbecue and cooking with advice from friends to try selling at farmers markets.
The thing we appreciate about our business is the chance we get to hear our customers and be part of their lives. We’re making a difference. It’s not just about the meat.
Later, a longtime butcher in their space on East Montview Boulevard retired, leaving ancient but workable meat cases and walk- in coolers. They took over the place and now every few months launch a new effort to reach out to a community of customers.
Their diverse customer base seeks everything from high-end steaks and lobster tails to boxes of bargain meats to be bought on Electronic Benefits Transfer cards, the debit-card system on which federal SNAP benefits now come. They like Goldstar hot links. Frog legs. Short ribs. Pork chops. Lean chicken. Rabbit meat.
They might listen to a class teaching brown rice is healthier than fried potatoes – they don’t want to be dictated to, Kwame said. The Warners seek local farm sourcing for lean bison and free-range chicken, but they can’t price their customers out of the market with a Tony’s Market approach.
“My seafood supplier early on told me, ‘Your customers will always tell you what they want. Get your own agenda off the table!’” he said. And he knows that while many activists seek a healthier neighborhood, Good Eatin’ also has to sell enough to keep the doors open and pay off debt.
“What’s missing big time is the produce factor: a healthy salad, a baked potato,” Kwame said.
Mkale and Kwame know they can do better gently nudging buyers. They say they’ve seen far too many families go next door to the 7-Eleven and spend EBT money on “pizza, chips and soda, and call that dinner.”
Their approach to finding expansion funds relies on the same faith and practical experience that allowed them to make it to three years.
“If your intention is clear, the resources will appear,” is Mkale’s life mantra.
Many states and communities have launched studies and plans to attack the “food desert” phenomenon. But the nonprofit community has also moved toward harder-nosed concepts like measurable results: Did the money spent move a clear problem toward an observable solution?
Whether customers buy new, healthier goods from an improved shop like the Warners’ may be the simplest test. But outside evaluators would also wonder if customers were just replacing purchases made elsewhere, or if they had truly changed their habits.
Public health measures like obesity are attractive targets, but it’s impossible to measure one store’s impact on a large, mobile population.
“The question of what success looks like is a good one, and I don’t think we have a full understanding of that yet,” said Kelci Price, director of research and evaluation for the Colorado Health Foundation.
“There’s research showing that increasing access alone is not enough, and that shouldn’t surprise us,” Price said.
The Warners, meanwhile, will move ahead flushing out every corner of the physical and virtual neighborhood for more customers. On a recent Tuesday, a grandmother filled out a prayer card after chatting at length with Mkale, and declared, “Thank you, baby! I love y’all – you’re definitely going to see me again.”
Kwame smiles but goes back to his smartphone, where he’s deploying an array of social media contacts to attract another generation. Facebook ads in news feeds, text-push reminders of loyalty credits waiting to be spent, prizes for families uploading video of their weekly slow-food dinners.
“Do we want a return on our investment? Yes,” Kwame said, standing up to greet another customer looking for a whole case of grilling sausage. “But the way we want to build to that bottom line is a little different.”
This article was originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of Health Elevations.