The Making of Healthier Tenderloin Corner Stores

A well-documented problem with eating healthy is the fact that the cheapest food tends to be unhealthy. Eating healthy can sometimes be simply out of people’s financial reach, which can be seen in the high obesity rates among low-income people. Low-income neighborhoods in the United States have 30% more convenience stores than middle-income neighborhoods, according to a case study by Southeast Food Access. In the Tenderloin specifically, a whopping 97% of corner stores are unhealthy.

Healthy produce in a Tenderloin market photo by Melanie Young

Healthy produce in a Tenderloin market– photo by Melanie Young

A “healthy food” store, by the way, is defined by the San Francisco Department of Public Health as “a food retailer operating in a fixed location whose business is primarily comprised of sales of food and non-food grocery products intended for preparation, use or consumption off the retailer’s premises,” among other details about the nutrition content of the food.

People who live nearby rely on these neighborhood corner stores for groceries, choosing from a selection that includes sugary soft drinks, liquor and cigarettes to feed their families. Healthy food is essential for a healthy lifestyle, and for too many people it’s been completely inaccessible—but thankfully there are people working to fix that.
The Tenderloin Healthy Corner Store Coalition (TLHCSC) is approaching corner stores in San Francisco and working to turn them into healthier environments, a reinvention which covers everything from their stock to their presentation. But corner stores sell what they do for a reason, so the change needs to keep their profits up, too.
Some corner store owners are already on the same page as TLHCSC; the eponymous proprietor of Radman’s Market in the Tenderloin doesn’t sell alcohol because of what he sees it doing to the neighborhood. He told KALW radio, “We see them everyday. People who consume alcohol. They’re in bad shape. They sleep on the sidewalk. It’s a very sad scene.” Radman’s has also sold produce since the store’s inception, but it’s a slow-selling product.
“No, they are not profitable at all,” Radman says. “Many times we lose on that. People were not really into fruits and vegetables.”
But the problem may not be with demand, but with presentation. Here’s where the presentation aspect of the makeover comes in. Much of the changes implemented in stores involve rearranging and general prettying up of the store’s layout and furniture, like having produce be displayed in a wooden island. The produce itself, when wilted, can be revitalized by a hot water bath.
When sold right, produce can be very profitable—even more so than junk food and cigarettes. According to Larry Brucia, president of the grocery design firm Sutti Associates, in an interview with KALW, “Cigarettes have an 11% margin, Frito lay potato chips, or those kinds of chips have an 18% margin, and alcohol is a 25% margin. Natural foods have a 35% margin. And produce has a 40% margin with a 10% loss.”
And people really do want healthier food. According to a number of polls undertaken by the TLHCSC, broccoli and oatmeal are the two most wanted health food items in corner stores.
Brucia also adds that the process needs to be a gradual one. “You just can’t go, ‘let’s change the store into a natural foods store.’ It would fail.” Instead, the stores need to transition over time to let customers adapt to the change, or to let new target audiences discover it over time. “You attract the mothers that are in the neighborhood,” he says, “and they start coming to your store and buying and feeling comfortable coming to your store. You start changing who your consumer is.”
Other methods for turning neighborhood markets into healthier environments is to change the advertising in the store. While cigarettes and junk food will always sell, a store’s presentation can do a lot to give priority to the healthier options. For the consumers, TLHCSC has assembled a “shopping list” of currently healthy stores in the Tenderloin, ranked by their presentation and selection.
TLHCSC and similar organizations, alongside experts like Larry Brucia, will guide stores individually through the transition process to help make them and, hopefully, their neighborhoods, much healthier for everyone involved.

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