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The man behind Chester’s miracle mar

It’s not quite the Miracle on 34th Street, but there’s a ray of hope at 9th and Trainer streets in Chester, where the nation’s first nonprofit supermarket opened this fall, bringing fresh produce, meats, seafood and other wholesome items to a USDA-designated “food desert” that had been without a full-service grocery store for more than a decade.

The Fare & Square supermarket, where low-income shoppers can earn a 7 percent bonus on their already well-priced purchases, is run by the regional hunger-relief organization Philabundance.

Daily News staff writer William Bender spoke with the group’s executive director, William Clark, about the store’s first few months serving the struggling city of 34,000.

Q How does Fare & Square work, and how does it differ from traditional supermarkets?

The objective is to make it like any other supermarket, so when you walk in you have an in-store butcher, a produce section, a dairy case, seafood, dry groceries. Our customers have to become members to shop here. There is no fee, but they have to use the member card to shop. It’s a little bit like a co-op in that way, but they don’t own shares in the store.

Q Why the nonprofit model in Chester?

The fact that we raised the $7 million from charitable sources to build the store means that we now own this store and don’t have rental fees or have to make a mortgage payment. There are no investors asking me for profits. We can also get products at the lowest possible price because we’re a nonprofit.

Q Theft is often mentioned when discussing Chester’s lack of a supermarket. Has that been a concern?

Theft is not really a problem in the community. It’s a red herring.

What really hurts a store here is that $10 million in grocery-store sales in the inner city does not generate the same gross profit as in the suburbs.

People in the inner city would rather buy flour and shortening and make their own apple pie. People in the suburbs will buy a frozen apple pie and other prepared foods.

Q Can you give an update on how things are going since Fare & Square opened in late September?

We’ve had good surprises and bad surprises. This is our very first supermarket and we’re learning a lot. Fresh meat is our No. 1-selling category. Fresh produce is No. 2. Those are really good signs for us.

We hired about 85 percent of our workforce from the city of Chester, and the turnover is practically zero. The staff is extremely enthusiastic.

We are learning slowly what kinds of products sell fast and what kinds of products don’t sell at all. Some things we priced too high, and you have to adjust down.

When we stocked the store, originally we probably had too many sugar-free, low-salt, low-cholesterol, gluten-free things. That stuff didn’t sell as well as probably it will in a couple years. That was just a rookie mistake.

Part of the deal here is we’re treating the folks in Chester as customers, not as charity cases. We’re saying: We respect you to make good decisions. Over time, we’d like to educate you and give you suggestions on ways you might eat better. But we’re not going to force you to drink more skim milk by not selling whole milk.

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