September 21, 2016

A Back to Basics Grocer

Ashley Xie

Ashley Xie

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Inside Mill Valley General Store, Baltimore Md.

Inside Mill Valley General Store, Baltimore Md.

Over the summer of 2016, CLF’s Map Team interns visited every known food store in Baltimore City to collect data for the Healthy Food Availability Index (HFAI)—but they also took time to interview some of the store owners and learn about their challenges and successes. Here’s the third of those stories. 

Tucked away in the Baltimore neighborhood known as Remington, in what used to be a broom machine factory, the Mill Valley General Store is a modest, unassuming brick storefront just off the I-83 exit ramp. What started as a small shop in Hampden in 2002 has become a spacious neighborhood grocery store and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) pickup site.

Cheryl Wade, the store’s owner, firmly believes in the basics for grocery stores—nothing fancy or complicated. Forget magazines, bubble gum at the checkout counter, and five brands of mayonnaise—and focus on stocking what people actually need. Wade describes her store as a natural foods grocery store, offering anything that is in season and grown locally. Mill Valley offers a selection of local dairy, meat, produce, and bulk food items, and it sources most of its products from fewer than 100 miles away. Milk comes from grass-fed cows and is 100 percent hormone-free; meat is humanely raised; all produce is purchased from small farms that Wade personally visits; and the large bulk food items include everything from spices, tea, coffee and dried goods. She likes to sell “by the pinch, by the pail,” which she claims is a less expensive and wasteful approach to selling food because people can buy exactly what they need. Stressing flexibility, convenience, and openness, Wade includes other basic needs such as milk alternatives, jams, breads, and cereals. In addition, says Wade, “We strive to carry items free from high fructose corn syrup, artificial coloring and preservatives—just food.”

Mill Valley General Store, Baltimore, Md.

Mill Valley General Store, Baltimore, Md.

With an eye on convenience and easy access to local produce, Wade also gives customers the option to pick up CSA produce anytime from Thursday to Sunday, instead of the more traditional CSA model, which is one time, one day every week. During the summer, she mainly sources her produce from One Straw Farm, an organic farm located in northern Baltimore County, and gives customers the opportunity to eat fresh, seasonal food.

When talking about the grocery store business, Wade has a vast amount of knowledge. She has lived above a neighborhood grocery store since she was six and worked in the corporate supermarket industry for more 40 years before retiring and opening the Mill Valley General Store. She emphasizes the benefits of sourcing locally, some of which include cheaper, fresher, and more easily replenished produce. Additionally, putting out what customers want means getting more “turns,” or number of times inventory is sold, and the more places you can get your cash flow in. Once you have consistent cash flow, you’re going to make a living, Wade explains. Throughout the years, she has learned by doing and “for a low gross profit business, every penny counts.”

Drawing from her experience, Wade says that food stores need to return to a model of carrying what grocery stores need to carry—food.

Offerings at Mill Valley General Store, Baltimore, Md.

Offerings at Mill Valley General Store, Baltimore, Md.

According to Wade, the typical supermarket is about 100,000 square feet. “It’s oriented to serve a large area where customers drive to market, and expected customer count per week is 100,000,” she says. In contrast, she says, “a grocery store is more in the range of 25,000 to 35,000 square feet, and the expected number of transactions per week is no more than 10,000. Many customers frequenting a grocery store will make purchases daily or a number of times per week.”

Mill Valley measures 6,500 square feet.

In the end it all comes down to knowing your customer and what they want to purchase. Wade explains that it gets a lot more personal, meaning understanding the culture and tastes of the food environment. For instance, in Maryland, pigs’ feet and tails are a popular delicacy; however, it will most likely not be found in your typical supermarket chain. Mill Valley provides organic, GMO-free pigs’ feet for only $1.50 each.

Wade forms personal connections with her customers and the greater community. She does so by donating around 40 crates of produce to Gather Baltimore, which collects and distributes surplus produce to financially challenged families every week. But she also helps new grocery store owners establish their own businesses. One of the main challenges in starting a business is meeting the minimum buying requirements. This is one of the reasons why it is so hard for smaller businesses, such as corner stores, to stock affordable healthy food. As a result, new grocers buy cases of produce or milk from the Mill Valley General Store, and increase their order each week without any additional charges. “It works for all of us and keeps all of us in business,” she says.

When she first opened her store, Wade only stocked 20 basic items and put notepads up asking what her customers wanted to buy in bulk. Now it is no surprise that Mill Valley has a steady stream of loyal customers from all over the Baltimore area. Aside from the 11-hour work days, she asserts that there is no typical day in the store and that’s exactly the fun of it. Wade says that “when you open a neighborhood grocery store, it is a very fun way to make a living.”

The Mill Valley General Store is open to customers on Thursday and Friday from 11am to 7pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 9am to 7pm, and is located on 2800 Sisson Street.

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