A Farm-Centric Convenience Store

Boxcar Grocer is a corner store with a difference, offering healthy choices sourced from urban farmers.

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Boxcar Grocer Owners

Boxcar Grocer Owners

Photo by: Image courtesy of Boxcar Grocer

Image courtesy of Boxcar Grocer

Store owners Alison Cross (left) and her brother, Alphonzo Cross, inside the Boxcar Grocer, located in Atlanta's Castleberry Hill neighborhood.

If there's any place desperate for access to fresh produce, it's the densely populated areas of downtown Atlanta, many of which are more than a long walk from the nearest full-service grocery store. Although farmers' markets abound, they're only open in spring and summer. The rest of the year, residents must look elsewhere to get their veg on. In Castleberry Hill, a square-mile section of industrial buildings converted to lofts and artist's studios with a main drag that leads directly to Centennial Olympic Park, one store offers healthy choices for folks who might otherwise drive several miles to purchase them.

The brainchild of sibling business partners Alison and Alphonzo Cross, Boxcar Grocer has the feel of a coffee shop in the form of a miniature Whole Foods. Fresh local fruits and vegetables greet shoppers when they step into the spartan building. There's the checkout counter and a nearby stand full of necessities such as toothpaste and toilet paper; metal shelving houses aisles of handmade soaps and organic spaghetti noodles, granola and snack crackers; and the cold cases boast local yogurt company Atlanta's Best Yogurt, wraps, kale salads and a raw power drink called "Chuice." Dogs are welcome. And a large farm table doubles as an eat-in spot and a place to tap into the free WiFi.

After the death of her father in the early 2000s, Alison moved to Grenada in the West Indies for a respite and to recharge. While there, she "experienced what it felt like to eat food straight off the tree and fish fresh from the ocean." Although she had access to healthy foods back home in San Francisco, she says she was intrigued by the ability to benefit from the "curative and restorative properties of food" without a middleman. When she returned to the U.S. and moved to Atlanta with her brother, the pair decided to invest in a project that could bring fresh local food to urban communities within the business model of a city staple they grew up with: the corner convenience store. They opened Boxcar Grocer in June, 2011.

"Fresh vegetables and fruits really are the original fast food," she says. The grab-and-go nature of the American drive-thru diet had left several of her family members with preventable diseases such as diabetes, and she wanted to do something to combat poor nutrition in urban communities. The Barnard grad says the vision she and her brother have for bringing fresh foods to the neighborhood incorporates a community garden partnership where locals participate in creating a sustainable source for fresh local foods. Currently, Boxcar Grocer partners with Truly Living Well, a nonprofit that operates four farm sites in the Atlanta metro and provides chemical- and GMO-free produce in all four seasons. Cross says her original plan was to operate a rooftop garden on top of the building that houses Boxcar Grocer, but working with existing urban farming operations is the best fit for now.

Although Boxcar Grocer doesn't offer the typical beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets that are many convenience stores' bread and butter, Cross says one or more of those elements may be included as she and her brother expand their business to additional locations. She currently fields calls from residents of nearby neighborhoods asking when she will open a Boxcar Grocer in their area. Atlanta neighborhoods like Grant Park, Sylvan Hills and Capitol View are bereft of grocery options, and those spots are prime considerations for the next store, Cross says. She hopes she and Alphonzo, 39, will open their next store in late 2014, with a third store planned for 2015. Beyond that, the pair has plans to keep expanding in Atlanta and branch out to Chattanooga, New Orleans, Detroit and Brooklyn.

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