Penn grads to launch reimagined corner store for Philly families in need

The Community Grocer is expected to open next year with hopes of expanding the experimental concept in the future.

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(From left) Tammy Reeves, founder of Resident Action Committee 2; Chef Z, TCG culinary director; Eli Moraru, TCG co-founder and president; Alex Imbot, TCG co-founder and CEO; and Onicah Maynard, also with Resident Action Committee 2, outside the TCG store in the Cobbs Creek section of Philadelphia on Sept. 19, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

(From left) Tammy Reeves, founder of Resident Action Committee 2; Chef Z, TCG culinary director; Eli Moraru, TCG co-founder and president; Alex Imbot, TCG co-founder and CEO; and Onicah Maynard, also with Resident Action Committee 2, outside the TCG store in the Cobbs Creek section of Philadelphia on Sept. 19, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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From a vacant two-story building in West Philadelphia, a pair of recent college grads are waging a protest in the name of food justice — one meal at a time.

Over the next 10 months, the blighted property in Cobbs Creek will be rehabbed and retrofitted to house a commercial kitchen and a corner store unlike any other in the city. Instead of chips and soda, the shelves will be stocked with nutritious and affordable meal kits for residents with low incomes who receive food stamps through SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — to keep their families fed.

They’re calling it The Community Grocer.

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Co-founders Alex Imbot and Eli Moraru hang the banner for their grocery/ corner store in the Cobbs Creek section of Philadelphia on Sept. 19, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It’s a protest to the current order. It is a protest against the idea that not everyone can have access to delicious, healthy, and empowering meals,” said co-founder Eli Moraru.

A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for Wednesday morning. It comes shortly after new federal data once again cemented Philadelphia as the poorest big city in the country, despite the city recording its lowest poverty rate — 21.7% — in nearly two decades.

Nearly a third of the city receives SNAP benefits, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Recipients can use their monthly payments, loaded onto a dedicated card, to buy staples like fresh produce, dairy products, and meat. But they can’t use their benefits to buy hot or prepared food.

(Courtesy of Stokes Architecture & Design)

The Community Grocer is rooted in that restriction. To Moraru and fellow co-founder Alexandre Imbot, it’s unjust that families with low incomes can’t enjoy the same opportunities as others, simply because they have an EBT card.

“We need to reinvent the corner store and guarantee that our neighbors have access to the culturally appropriate and delicious ingredients and meals that they are asking for,” said Imbot.

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TCG will be located on the corner of 60th Street and Walton Avenue, not far from an educational center and a Methodist church. It will be divided into two distinct, but interrelated spaces. Moraru and Imbot will run the front of the building, where residents can purchase a grab-and-go meal kit. Another nonprofit, Resident Action Committee II, will operate a community commercial kitchen in the back, where neighbors can take the kit and exchange it for a prepared version of the same meal. The kitchen will also prep the meal kits.

The TCG team hangs banners outside their future store building in the Cobbs Creek section of Philadelphia on September 19, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The store will offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner, sold as individual ingredients that can also be cooked at home. The loophole enables residents to get a hot meal on the cheap without a side of red tape. And while construction is underway, Moraru and Imbot plan to meet with neighbors, whose preferences will inform what the store offers.

The second floor will be used as a community space where classes and other services will be offered.

‘They really care’

Moraru and Imbot met as undergrads at the University of Pennsylvania. They got the idea for The Community Grocer while volunteering with the Resident Action Committee during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every week, the Southwest Philadelphia-based organization handed out free boxes of food to residents in the majority Black neighborhood. For two winters, the young men were on hand to help the nonprofit, which they had previously teamed up with when the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery was closing.

While they appreciated the donated food, largely an assortment of unrelated bulk ingredients, neighbor after neighbor shared a hunger to be able to buy a healthy, hot affordable meal within walking distance. Something they couldn’t use their SNAP benefits to purchase.

The conversations led them to Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, a place dedicated to increasing access to healthy foods and supporting community-led efforts to change the country’s food system. They wanted to know if they could transform EBT-eligible ingredients into healthy meal solutions for their neighbors.

The answer yielded The Community Grocer, a concept believed to be the first of its kind.

“Still working on the process of co-creation and creating a business model and a new idea of what the corner store can be so that all our neighbors are empowered and involved in this process,” said Moraru.

The Community Grocer retail space in the midst of construction before their official groundbreaking. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

At first, Charles Reeves, executive director of Resident Action Committee II, thought the concept was crazy. But the more he learned about it, the more sense it made. And he was confident Moraru and Imbot had the compassion and commitment required to see the idea through.

“They care about poor people. They really care about people dying. They really care about the problems that we have in our community. So therefore, they’re going to be alright,” said Reeves, who grew up in his father’s corner store and owned a cheesesteak place for years before launching his nonprofit.

Others felt the same way.

To date, the pair have cobbled together nearly $1 million. That includes the cost of buying the property (the pair’s second location after a burst pipe nixed the deal for the first in Southwest Philly), and money for employing nearly 20 full- and- part-time staffers, including a culinary director.

M&T Bank contributed $300,000 to the effort. Moraru and Imbot also secured state funding through The Food Trust and a loan from the Community First Fund. Last year, the pair won the President’s Sustainability Prize through Penn.

“A small grant to an organization that’s trying to get started wasn’t going to have an impact. We wanted to show that we had faith in their model, we had faith in what they were doing, and understood the need. So we decided to come in big on this one,” said Randy Kunkle, senior vice president and regional community reinvestment manager at M&T Bank.

(Courtesy of Stokes Architecture & Design)

In the future, Moraru and Imbot hope to take their concept on the road. They’ve applied for state funding they hope to use for a pair of vehicles they can take around the city. One will have the meal kits. The other will be a food truck where residents can trade them in the way they’ll be able to at The Community Grocer in Cobbs Creek.

“Everyone has the dignity and respect to eat well, and that’s what we’re trying to do here, “ said Moraru.

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