Technology holds the promise of raising living standards for all. Yet, history shows that even with innovations as humble as cellophane, the results are often uneven. Today’s urban “food deserts” can be traced back to technological changes that began in our neighborhoods over a century ago.
Winkler Foods, Lindour Meats, Lieb Bakery, Constance Candy. These are just a few of the nearly 100 food stores you would have found in the South Minneapolis neighborhood of Longfellow in the 1930s. They included 67 grocery stores, eight bakeries, seven butchers and ten candy stores. Today, few remain, having been replaced by big chain supermarkets and convenience stores.
Beginning in the 1920s, technological and business innovations gave rise to the supermarket. Shopping slowly moved to larger lots on the periphery, as walking to small, local stores was replaced with driving to large, distant ones. And if you had limited transportation options (i.e. no car), you found yourself with less access to healthy food under this new distribution system.
The good old days?
Before this, people shopped nearly every day at separate stores for meat, baked goods, etc. within walking distance of their home or streetcar line. Many stores offered free delivery and credit, which was made up for in higher prices.
But as noted in Marc Levinson’s The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, many of these stores were run inefficiently. One in four failed each year. Owners had to buy their goods through commissioned brokers instead of directly from wholesalers, which added a layer of cost.
Once refrigeration and cellophane became more prevalent by 1930, stores were able to stock more goods. These innovations, along with cars, allowed people to shop less often. Supermarkets like A&P drove out corner stores by copying their best practices (e.g. free delivery) while undercutting their prices. Amenities like ample off-street parking and air conditioning sealed the deal.
The New Urbanist dream of walkable communities usually includes some small stores. But for groceries, the economics work against it, as their average profit margin is 1.3%. The small, independent stores that survive today do so mainly in low income neighborhoods by either filling an ethnic niche, or through the profits from Slim Jims, Marlboros and Pick 6 tickets.
It’s easy to be lured by what University of Kansas history professor, Jeffrey Moran, has coined “Nostesia” — “a longing for a time that never was.” The truth is, many corner stores were (and still are) run by recent immigrants with few options but to work long hours for uncertain pay. And do consumers really want to spend an extra hour every night buying and lugging home food?
When people wax nostalgic about corner stores, they’re likely remembering the social glue they provided — where neighbors could run into each other to share gossip. And this might well explain the popularity of farmers’ markets (among both consumers and policy makers trying to address “food deserts”), which function as part food source, part carnival.
But time marches on. Once electric cars and one-hour drone delivery take hold, will we someday find ourselves fondly telling our grandchildren, “We used to drive in our minivan down to the ol’ Super America, where Sis and I would lay our paper money on the counter to buy a HUGE pop that had real sugar!”
Photo at top courtesy of john crozier on Unsplash
I think this story is one food market trend behind. The urban grocery is again on the upswing.
The St. Anthony Lunds. The 12th and Hennepin Lunds. Whole Foods on Washington. Longfellow Market. Lakewinds coop in Richfield (okay, less urban). The alleged Trader Joe’s coming to Downtown East. Heck the Wedge and Seward coops aren’t that old either.
They will probably never be as frequent as the corner stores of old, and they’re looking more “upscale,” but they are not only growing but doing so with a model in which many of their customers arrive on foot.
I think that this will supplement the delivery service mentioned in the story as “the future”. If indeed this future comes to pass, it will likely have a minimum purchase to get delivery or “free” delivery. Thus, these smaller stores (Target Express I would also include in there… anyone heard if they’d be cool with taking a corner of Macy’s?) would supplement those stores for items that aren’t being delivered to the home (for people who cannot get it delivered to their place of residence), and any forgotten or extraneous goods while shopping.
I don’t think delivery of food is really the future.
I think the future (at least mid-term) of food is away from processed food and back toward produce, which people will prefer to select for themselves.
But what do I know?
I did a tour of Coborn’s warehouse one time, and in the produce section, they said that they HAVE to make sure produce they deliver is great, or people won’t order from them in the future. And, people who pick produce for a living may be better at doing so than people who don’t. I, for one, am horrible at picking ripe avocados.
That’s a fair point.
And the Wedge opened a new corner store and Seward is opening up a new full blown grocery store, both in urban locations.
In terms of square footage, these are not the corner stores I’m referring to. Since most of us grew up only knowing about “supermarkets”, we don’t have the perspective. This is what I’m referring to: http://collections.mnhs.org/cms/largerimage.php?irn=10108308&catirn=10729751
Maybe I’m just spoiled for choice, because on the East side of Powderhorn there’s a corner store like every 4 blocks (those “ethnic niches” you mention once aren’t small) but my grandmother – who spent the ’50s living in Bloomington with no car available during the week, so shopped at one of those little groceries you could walk to and park a pram on the sidewalk in front back then, LOVED grocery stores with such passion because the quality & variety were so much better. A lot of things changed at once to kill the tiny stores, but I do wonder if the food desert thing is an absolute access change (access to good food disappeared compared to 30 or 60 years ago) or if it’s another relative change, that goes with general inequality – accessibility to good food in poorer neighborhoods stayed about the same but in richer ones it got a lot better.
Thanks, Adam. I’m referring to the very small stores, not the ones you mentioned — which are essentially the larger-sized stores that drove out the corner stores. Seventy years ago, there were about 100 stores in Longfellow. Today, there are perhaps a dozen stores selling “food-like” items (so, convenience stores included) in the neighborhood.
Considering that there are around 20,000 residents of Longfellow (probably 20-30% more at 1950’s peak), that was an impressive store to resident ratio. Not a lot of need for parking lots.
I think consumer preferences are increasingly undermining the economies-of-scale-inevitability narrative described here. Look at the problems General Mills is facing: http://www.startribune.com/business/275424921.html.
One example: more and more people want to eat fresh-baked bread without preservatives, as opposed to the gooey sweet sandwich bread that was the norm. It’s hard to “scale up” fresh bread, though, because it goes rock solid in a few hours. Local beer is another example, or local produce. Larger operations will struggle to accommodate such changing preferences because it introduces incredible complexity into their distribution networks.
Also, I don’t know if the habit of shopping once a week for loads of frozen, canned, and preserved food will hold up either. People pay a premium for fresh food, which undermines the low-margins argument. Coupled with the fact that air-conditioning isn’t much of a novelty anymore, perhaps the corner store is poised for a comeback.
Good points. I agree, tastes are (thankfully) changing for a lot of people. I think there’s data showing that we’re eating out a lot more than earlier generations and are willing to spend more for food. In Longfellow, Turtle Bread is filling a niche, but not as a stand-alone bakery, but as a coffee shop/restaurant. But my point is, I’d be surprised to see stand-alone butcher coming back to the neighborhood anytime soon.
Erm, Everett’s Meats at Cedar and 38th?
Yes, it’s funny. The few stand-alone butchers that are around probably survive just because there are so few. But again, 70 years ago, there were dozens of butcher shops in Minneapolis. And Everett’s is much bigger than the typical butcher was back then.
Everett’s is awesome, and somewhat of an anomaly. I think they draw from a pretty large area, and would love to know how big that area is for them to survive. My impression is they are also a family business that has had very good management for a long time. It may be a challenge to sell that business as-is. For now, I will remain a dedicated non-vegetarian!
Okay, I don’t really go as far as Longfellow to shop much, given the density of stores in the few blocks between here and there, but if you look just across Cedar Ave, there’s a butcher in the Mercado Central at Lake & Bloomington. And there’s a pretty impressive meat selection at the corner store (Sam’s) on the alley by Bloomington & 35th. And isn’t there a halal meat section in the grocery on Cedar & Lake? So given that most grocery stores don’t butcher their own meat any more, that’s a lot of fresh meat stores.
They each serve a different, not entirely geographical, market – Everett’s ethnic-mix white people (polish sausage, olive loaf, brisket), Mexican/Mexican-American, and mostly Somali-immigrant.
We have an awful lot of bakeries, too, split along similar lines. Plus I don’t know how you count the food trucks, and the private people selling food out of yards & churches all summer (one summer, there was a duplex a few blocks from us that had a garage sale every Friday & either taco or indian taco plates depending who was cooking).
What about these folks? http://www.theherbivorousbutcher.com/about-us/
Interesting post. I suspect part of the reason corner grocers in New York City (they call them “bodegas” for some reason) are so prevalent is the sheer density of households within walking distance, particularly when they are on the route to/from the subway, and that so many trips are made on foot anyway.
New York City isn’t immune to the macroeconomic forces you mention, after all….
All the bodegas around me had the worst produce in the world, and mostly expired nonperishable foods. I think they subsist on cigarettes, booze, lottery tickets, and the occasional household goods purchase.
Point being, they aren’t food stores.
That wasn’t the case I found when I rented an Air B&B last year in Brooklyn. I got everything I needed, including produce. Damn, forgot the lottery tickets….
I would imagine bodegas to some extent reflect the demographics of their immediate surroundings.
Over on the forum, we’ve been having a discussion about the corner stores in CARAG: https://forum.streets.mn/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=3164&start=20#p79993
I can think of quite six small food (grocery, meat, bread) stores in a small area in Minneapolis that have closed in my memory. Walking the same area with my father, I know the locations of at least six more that he talks about. There are at least a handful more buildings that were obviously were home-businesses at one point.
As someone who chooses not to drive, I see the allure of the corner store. I try to time my grocery trips around weather conditions–cold enough that my freezer items don’t melt too much on the walk home, dry enough that my cart isn’t splashing me.
I know this is much bigger scale than this post, but thoughts on the new Longfellow Market? It’s kind of amazing in today’s economy to open a straightforward mid-market grocery store.
Yeah, it’s interesting that while there’s a movement away from the big “everything” grocert store to more specialized, private label stores (Trader Joe’s, Aldi, etc.), the Longfellow Market very deliberately went the nostalgia route, with uniforms, meat counter, etc. But from the what I know about the neighborhood, I think they are making some adjustments to offer more coop-y fair.
It’s funny that it took a foreign company — Aldi — to fill a niche for smaller, budget markets in the urban U.S. The research I read before writing this shows that younger people are more willing to shop every day and shop at an average of five stores. But I wonder if this will hold when/if they start having children…
There is Local D’Lish in the North Loop – http://www.localdlish.com/ a grocer less than ten years old but open long enough to have cultivated a pretty good following. Local food and customer service. Not a lottery ticket in sight! It occupies well under 10,000 square feet, probably under 5. That is unusual in today’s world.
Two small points…During the streetcar days, a route zig-zagged diagonally through Longfellow from Lake and maybe 27th or 36th (not sure), and exited onto 46th Street/Highland Village. Those stops likely supported a greater number of commercial corners than a neighborhood might ordinarily have had in those times. Numbers in 2012 give the Longfellow community about 9500 households (www.mncompass.org).
Aldi and Trader Joe’s are different units of the same German company.(http://www.checkbook.org/interactive/spmkt/other/w/trader-joes.cfm)
Thanks, Holly. Yup, I drew in the old streetcar line on the map I did earlier because I was curious how strong the patterns were: https://mapsengine.google.com/map/u/0/viewer?mid=zEfUYwdQTqCs.k1a-a14_1C0E