By: Jeff Gammage
Minutes after the Fare & Square supermarket opened in Chester on Saturday, so many customers crowded the aisles that every shopping cart was taken, and newcomers had to wait their turn.
Otherwise, people didn’t stop coming through the doors all day.
For hours, in the parking lot and in the vegetable aisle, on the sidewalk and by the fruit displays, shoppers and workers shared hugs, handshakes, and kind words. More than a few shed tears.
This grandest of grand openings returned to the beleaguered city an institution that seemed forever vanished: a grocery store.
“Do you know how long we’ve been waiting for this?” asked an excited Stephanie Guy, 58, a Chester resident. “It’s great for the community.”
Shirley Truitt walked into the store shortly after 5 p.m., to find herself quickly surrounded by store workers and presented with a bouquet of flowers – the 5,000th customer.
“This is a long time coming,” she said. “I’m proud of Chester.”
At one time, in its glory days, Chester had five supermarkets, all of them needed to serve the families of thousands of workers who built huge, powerful ships and sleek, fast cars. But people left as jobs dwindled, and the supermarkets died one by one.
The last, the West End Food Center, closed in 2001.
Since then, plans for a new grocery store have risen and disappeared like ghosts. That left city residents to shop at corner stores, where fresh food is tough to find, or to travel to stores in other towns, often by bus or cab.
“The residents of the city never let die that they wanted a supermarket,” said Bill Clark, president of Philabundance, the nonprofit agency that spent seven years and $7 million developing and creating Fare & Square. “A real supermarket.”
For Clark, like the people around him, Saturday was a day of celebration. His nonprofit usually works distributing donated food to pantries across the region. But in Chester the agency took on a new mission to become a store owner, running the first nonprofit grocery in the nation.
Bright, clean, and fully stocked, Fare & Square looked as good as any suburban co-op or downtown market. “When you walk through the doors, you don’t know it’s a nonprofit,” Clark said.
It stands at Ninth and Trainer Streets, within the same brick walls where the West End Food Center made its last stand. Next door is a Family Dollar, across the street the No. 7 Chinese Takeout and a nail salon.
Bright green and purple flags that proclaimed “Grand Opening” fluttered just outside the Fare & Square doors. Just inside, stacks of bright green and red apples beckoned.
The project had its doubters. Chester is among the poorest cities in Pennsylvania. And supermarkets are a brutal business. Profit margins are low, often 1 percent or less on particular items. And the competition is fierce, not just among chains such as Acme and ShopRite but from relatively new food vendors including Walmart and Costco.
Clark is confident that Fare & Square will thrive, even while charging prices 8 percent to 10 percent lower than small urban grocers.
How? Many reasons, Clark said. For one, Philabundance owns the building, having bought the property with donations and government money. That means no rent. And it’s a nonprofit agency. That means no taxes. Philabundance has no corporate overseers or stockholders. That means no having to satisfy investors.
A big benefit of having the store is its ability to provide not just food, but good, fresh, healthy food. The city has perhaps a hundred corner stores, but it’s nearly impossible to buy a head of lettuce in any of them. Produce, eggs, baby food, diapers – Fare & Square will sell those much-needed family items practically at cost.
It has hired 69 employees, 80 percent of them Chester residents and most previously long-term unemployed.
Quannetta Pryor was one of them. On Saturday, wearing a new purple apron, she staffed the produce aisle, helping customers find what they sought. She stayed busy all day.
“Wow, crazy,” she said, her eyes filling. “So many people in here. We’ve gone such a long time without a supermarket. This store is going to do great.”
Pryor routinely traveled to nearby Eddystone to shop for food, lugging her full bags onto a bus or paying for a cab. Now she’ll shop where she works.
It’s a boost for a community that needed one.
The federal government declared the city of 33,000 a food desert – a low-income area lacking ready access to healthful food. The city poverty rate is 36.9 percent, and its 13 percent unemployment rate is nearly double that of the nation. Half the population departed after World War II as dominant manufacturing industries closed or left and jobs disappeared.
In recent years the city has fought to attract new development, including Harrah’s casino and PPL Park, home of the Philadelphia Union soccer team.
The supermarket project depended not only on Philabundance but on financial help from partners including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Delaware Valley Regional Economic Development Fund, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, and Sunoco. Even big chains – who never saw a way to make money in Chester – helped out. Wawa provided technical support. The store’s green carts? Donated by Giant Food Stores.
“It looks good,” said Sheila Driggins, 60, a Chester resident who was shopping in the meat aisle. “Prices look reasonable . . . a blessing.”