In San Francisco’s Tenderloin, getting healthy fare often isn’t an option. Without a full service grocery store in the neighborhood, residents rely on corner stores, and the district has the city’s highest concentration of convenience stores.
Tenderloin resident Steve Tennis says what they sell is often, “Poison, its just poison. Mothers with little kids in their arms in their strollers. What is the first thing these children see that are two, three years old? Candy, alcohol, dirty books. Nothing healthy. If this is your experience, week in and week out, it doesn’t take long for you to get hard wired to that food source.”
While much of their merchandise isn’t nutritious, the stores are part of the fabric of the neighborhood. So a team of residents and neighborhood leaders is helping storeowners learn how they can offer more healthy food options profitably.
There’s a lot at stake when it comes to improving access to healthy food in the Tenderloin. According to the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the ratio of unhealthy to healthy food retailers here is 97 percent to three percent. Those are bad odds for locals. Many have mobility issues and can’t venture out of the neighborhood to get groceries. And some, like Fred Dejamco, have complicated health issues that make poor nutrition especially dangerous. Diabetes, lung disease, and cancer rates are especially high here and more than a third of the residents live with a disability.
Dejamco points out that medications combined with an unhealthy diet “can really cause a lot of damage in your system.”
Last year, Dejamco joined the Tenderloin Healthy Corner Store Coalition. They rated local markets on a healthiness scale. They also created a shopping guide showing what fresh products, like milk, eggs, or fruit, each store carries. Now, the city is working with them to transform one store in the Tenderloin. The community chose Radman’s on Turk and Jones.
The transformation of Radman’s Market
The store opened in 1998 and is expanding into the vacant space next door. Fahdl Radman says the new space will allow him to offer more nutritious foods.
“We are going to have fresh meat and poultry and more healthier choices there,” he says. “We’ll have grains, bulk, breads, locally baked breads.”
Radman’s is already ahead of the health curve in many ways. Unlike most of the stores here, it doesn’t sell alcohol. While that hurts Radman’s profit margin, he says he can’t stand seeing what liquor does to the neighborhood.
“We see them everyday,” he says. “People who consume alcohol. They’re in bad shape. They sleep on the sidewalk. It’s a very sad scene.”
Since it opened, the store has carried a small selection of produce. But Radman said those items haven’t always worked out so well.
“No they are not profitable at all,” he says. “Many times we lose on that. People were not really into fruits and vegetables.”
Larry Brucia, president of grocery design firm Sutti Associates, says Radman’s problem may have had to do with how he presented the merchandise.
“So have you looked at his produce? he asks. “It’s not very attractive. He’s selling produce, but he’s not managing produce the right way.”
Brucia is providing pro bono expertise for the project. He says produce can be more profitable than packaged goods.
“Cigarettes have an 11 percent margin, Frito lay potato chips, or those kinds of chips have an 18 percent margin, and alcohol is a 25 percent margin,” he says. “Natural foods have a 35 percent margin. And produce has a 40 percent margin with a 10 percent loss.”
That’s a much better profit margin, even considering what spoils, so long as you know what you’re doing, Brucia says.
“It’s a matter of learning how to manage produce,” he explains. “That’s what we do. Our team goes in there and teaches the owners on how to manage produce.”
How to manage produce
Scott Schaffer is a consultant with Sutti Associates. He and Radman are clambering all over the store, rearranging merchandise, and setting up displays to make the produce stand out. Looking over the arrangement in the refrigerator case, Schaffer says wants the sexy stuff up front, because sex sells.
“Berries are always sexy,” he says, “grapes are sexy. People like those things.”
To help Radman figure out precisely what else people in the Tenderloin want to buy, the Healthy Corner Store Coalition conducted hundreds of surveys all around the neighborhood. So far, broccoli and oatmeal look like the big winners. But the advisors are not suggesting he turn his store completely upside down.
Instead, grocery consultant Larry Brucia says, “You just can’t go ‘lets change the store into a natural foods store.’ It would fail, it will fail.”
He says it needs to be an evolutionary process.
“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.”
With that change, he says they eventually start buying, and eating, healthier.
The Healthy Corner Store Coalition and Sutti Associates have made a long-term commitment to help Radman as he transforms his store. They will offer weekly consultations for the next two months and quarterly check ups for the next three years.
Radman’s is the first store in the Tenderloin to reset what it carries. But more stores may be on the way. The Healthy Corner Store Coalition has reached out to nearly every market in the neighborhood. Twelve storeowners attended a workshop last month to learn more about the initiative. And Radman’s will have its grand healthy reopening during Sunday Streets in the Tenderloin on April 13th.
“I’m excited,” says Radman. “I’m just waiting for the day when we have the store in full operation.”