Food insecurity looms large on the east side of Kansas City, and Community Builders has taken a foray into the grocery business to address the need for a reliable, quality food source for residents in the area.
“If you go out to the suburban neighborhoods, you’ve got about five stores within a three-mile radius,” Elexa Pierson, store director of KC Sun Fresh, said. “Then over here, you maybe have one within a 10-mile radius, which is really disheartening.”
Community Builders is the operator of two of the largest grocery stores east of Troost. In June 2020, after the grocery store owner decided to retire and sell the grocery store located in The Shops on Blue Parkway, he approached Community Builders about taking over the business. While owning and operating a grocery store was not in their business plan, concern that the vacated property – that Community Builders owns – might not be replaced with another operator, leading to further food instability, motivated the organization to act.
“That was not part of our plan,” Emmet Pierson, CEO of Community Builders, said. “But again, how do we try to meet the unmet needs for goods and services in this community? If not us, who?”
A couple of years later, a local business owner planned to close the KC Sun Fresh grocery store on Linwood and Prospect Ave., and the organization found itself again being approached to take over the location.
“So we stepped up and we came in,” Emmet Pierson said. “We have a fantastic staff. And we’ve been able to put our business savvy and systems in place. But it shows we are invested in our community.”
Nearly 85% of their employees live within three miles of each store, creating job opportunities within the community. KC Sun Fresh likes to highlight they are Black-led and that their staff and administration reflect the community.
But compared to other Kansas City-area grocery stores, the sales volume at both stores is well below the city’s average.
The biggest problem, according to Elexa Pierson, development analyst with Community Builders, is the outward perception of the stores.
“Everyone kind of sees the urban stores as dirty or not having the same standards as you would have at a suburban Hy-Vee,” Elexa Pierson said. “That’s not the case and we have to fight against that image even from our own community. We can give you the exact same thing that you can find any other place, the same hospitality, the same services, the same prices.”
To counter those perceptions, Community Builders has taken steps to improve its mix of product offerings to include more name brands while still maintaining affordable options for low-income shoppers. A focused effort to keep prices lower has also been important according to the store. Compared to competitors, Price Chopper and Hy-Vee, KC Sun Fresh has lower prices on kitchen staples like milk, eggs, produce, and hamburger.
Plans to revitalize the store on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. are also underway. The renovations will include an updated, modern store layout for easier shopping, new self-checkout registers, a community room for social gatherings or local meetings, and a community kitchen for small vendors or entrepreneurs to use.
Emmett Pierson noted the store will never be able to compete with national chains. So with the price of gas and the drive time involved, both Piersons question if there’s really any savings considering the few-cents differences in prices.
Emmett Pierson says another way to boost their average sales is for existing customers to spend a little more.
“It comes down to just getting everybody to spend five more dollars,” he said. “We have the community, we have people in the surrounding areas. We just need to get them in here.”
Jacob Martin is a Report for America corps member based at The Community Voice covering Kansas City’s African-American community.