A new grocery store on Indianapolis’ northeast side is going to try to do what so many people and organizations in the city have made a top priority: give locals access to healthy, affordable food.
Robert Hearst opened A&I Variety Meats and Produce on the corner of 38th Street and Post Road after visiting family in Mississippi and seeing his cousins’ grocery store. He said it was an “aha” moment. After researching the northeast Indianapolis area and learning that people struggle to find a consistent source of nutritious food because of transportation issues and chronic poverty, Hearst told his wife, Sony, they should do something about it.
“I told my wife, ‘We really have to concentrate on that,’” Hearst said. “‘I want to have fresh produce, fresh meat, fresh fruit.’”
Hearst took about two years to research his mission and garner community support, and finally opened A&I in January. The store, which used to be a dentist office, is across from the old Kroger in the North Eastwood Plaza off 38th Street. The side windows are boarded up, but yard signs and a flashing “OPEN” sign in the window give life to the building. Aesthetics are secondary, though, because Hearst’s goal for A&I is to turn it into a “full-fledged” grocery store in a food desert.
“I don’t think I could’ve chosen a better place to come to set up shop,” Hearst said. “You hear about all the negative stuff about the far east side. I’m gonna tell you, these people have really stepped up and shown support for me, my wife, the store.”
A couple weeks ago, Hearst showed up in the morning to find two windows busted out by rocks. He guessed it was just some kids who didn’t realize the building wasn’t abandoned anymore, but it created a dilemma: Hearst and his wife had to figure out how to pay for damages when they had just sunk about $70,000 into the store.
Several local leaders came together to help with the costs, which totaled about $1,200. Hearst said he paid about $300 of his own, and the rest came from fundraising. Faith James, founder of Reclaim Indy, headed an effort to get people into the grocery store and increase business. She and others raised about $400 and took residents to the store to spend that money on groceries. Hearst said another man, a stranger, donated $250 to help replace the windows.
“The community, they really rallied around me,” Hearst said. “They gave us a lot of support and encouragement. They were like, ‘This is all we have. We can’t let nothin’ happen to it.’”
For now, A&I has bare, white walls and a lot of empty space. It’s a single room with some storage in the back. Hearst wants to eventually gut more of the building and add a vegan section (he’s been surprised at how many people want vegan options). Produce sits in the middle on top of cardboard tables. Two freezers on either side hold varieties of meat from boneless chicken wings to white meatturkey burgers. Hearst said he gets most of his food from local sources, including Ideal Meat and Indianapolis Fruit Company.
Part of the store’s early appeal is residents can have food delivered to them, or they can get a ride to the store on weekends through GroGo.
“They love the fact that it’s minority-owned and operated,” Eric Williams, GroGo’s founder, said of the people who use his company’s service. “… A lot of businesses have abandoned this area, so it’s good to see entrepreneurs come back.”
Hearst, who studied engineering at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and worked in construction before opening A&I, is learning a lot on the fly. He has to go through the supply-and-demand dance to make sure he has the produce his customers want, learn how to efficiently market the store and attract more people. Hearst applied to the state to be able to accept EBT, but he said the recent partial government shutdown slowed that process. He expects that to be done soon, though, and is counting on it bringing a boost to business.
Derris Ross, founder of the Ross Foundation, said A&I could help advance his organization’s goals in the community, including reducing crime and violence, as long as people “put their arms around this kind of business” by supporting it financially and investing their time in its success.
“It only makes sense to put something like this in our neighborhood,” Ross said.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.
A&I VARIETY MEATS AND PRODUCE
Where: 8939 E. 38th St.
Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Saturday
COMMUNITY ACTION DAY
Residents can help clean up and paint A&I 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Feb. 9