Impact Hub member Carrie Ferrence is working to remedy Seattle’s urban food deserts, with a store full of fresh meals and community.
By Kate Bandzmer
Carrie Ferrence had passion for retail and a vision of a community corner store when she came into the Sustainable Business program at Pinchot University [Editor's note: Our upstairs university!]. It’s where she met Jaqueline Gjurgevich, who had a corporate background and a passion for food. Together, they came up with the idea for a community grocery store as a graduate project, and the idea caught on quickly. She came out of the program as owner and co-founder of Stockbox Grocery.
During a two-year stretch, they won a UW business plan competition, launched a prototype of their store in a parking lot shipping container, brought their model to the Whitehouse for a conversation on serving vulnerable communities, won an Echoing Green fellowship, and opened their first 500 square foot store in South Park.
“That was a really crazy experience,” Carrie reflects. She set up the shipping container prototype in just two weeks. “That included turning it into a store and getting it permitted across the city. I still look back on it and I’m like, ‘I don’t know how we did that.’ That was totally a superhuman moment. It was really fun, a lot of work, and a lot of long days. Oddly that’s what you kind of live on in this type of work.”
Neighborhood kids came to visit every day after school. “I’m not a cheeseball,” she cringes, “but the kids would come home after school, and they would stop and come in to bug us… it’s exactly what we were hoping for. We still have pictures that the kids drew for us that we had up on the store. They couldn’t even spell Stockbox right, but it was just really awesome. The immediate sense of ownership the kids had over the store was pretty amazing.”
The format was so popular that Carrie still gets emails from people wanting to start their own businesses in shipping containers. It created initial excitement for the project, but they needed a larger space. “Our goal was to place shipping container stores all over the city, and pretty early on we realized it was just not going to work. At the end of the day, we have always been more than a shipping container. A lot of people still know us as a shipping container business, but we were always a grocery store first,” she levels. “The impact that we’re mitigating is in making grocery stores right-sized for communities, and making grocery stores community-centric again. This is what our relationship was with grocery stores for many, many years before they were replaced with convenience stores and with the large chains. We’re trying to bring grocery back down to the people level.”
Carrie will never forget the corner store where she grew up. “I grew up in a really small town, like 150 people. My family ran a corner store there for five generations. It was closed before I was even born, but it was always a really foundational part of how I identified with my family and my community.”
She knows that not many workers have a passion for retail like she does. But to Carrie, it represents a piece of her family history. “People still tell stories about that store. It created a space for people to come together. My dad would tell me stories of how he would come home from school and he would just sit in the store. He and his brothers. Everyone would stop by after work and they would just hang out. You know, buy groceries, but just share gossip. That’s how rural life in America still is. That’s why you connect to people. I think there’s a longing for that type of connection again.”
Stockbox moved into its current 2,000 square foot location at the corner of 9th and James Street in August of 2007. First Hill has been Seattle’s most densely populated community since the first days, and its residents have always had a preference to walk places. “It’s the most walk-dependent community in Seattle,” Carrie points out, “yet it doesn’t have a post office, it doesn’t have a community center, it doesn’t have so many of these things that other communities take for granted, and food is a big part of that.”
As the urban core continues to grow and pulverize old neighborhoods, Carrie foresees a heightened need for businesses like Stockbox. ”We’re bringing more people into the urban core, but we don’t have essential resources to serve them. It’s partly that we haven’t been investing in our urban neighborhoods, and it’s partly that we’re not creating the space for these type of resources to thrive.” She sees Stockbox as a portion of the recipe for a good neighborhood. “We’re trying to go in and not just provide a resource for food, but inspire other resources and businesses to move in as well.”
Carrie was first inspired to see businesses as a tool for social change working at a retail construction salvage business called Second Use. “Because it was a totally niche business, we worked on policy development on a city and regional level. It was such a fascinating little industry to get involved with. Really crazy people are drawn to that type of work, so it was fun - really hard - but really fun, and personally impactful for me.”
Coming into the First Hill neighborhood was frightening at first. The pair of entrepreneurs had never lived or worked there. “It was a moment where we needed to stand on our own as a business and let go of our initial support system. We needed to depend on the community, and they’ve done it. We’ve just gotten the red carpet treatment from that community.”
Now their greatest support system is the community. “People are really passionate about the store, they’re really honest with us and that has been great. It’s sometimes really hard to hear when you need to improve on something, and when you have customers that feel they can pull you aside and tell you about what’s working and what’s not that’s a real great demonstration that they’re invested in what you’re doing.”
Working with 30 different local suppliers, Stockbox offers products that focus on fresh. Fresh produce, dairy, and meat are a priority: “That’s where we try to put the rotation, it’s where we’re most price sensitive, and it’s what we put front and center in the store. It doesn’t feel like a convenience store - it feels like a grocery store, just a lot smaller.”
At the suggestion of their customers, Stockbox is also seeking to provide meals for the people who work in the community, which make up about 40% of the business. “Moving forward, we’re looking for that balance of live/work community, which is what a lot of Seattle is turning into.” In the next month, they’ll be adding in a hot meal bar.
Over the next year, Stockbox will be opening two new stores. “We’re looking for locations, raising money, trying to get our First Hill store to continue to grow.”
Carrie will keep relying on the community she’s attracted for support. “If you had any idea what it took to do this, you probably wouldn’t do it. But that’s good. If you want to follow your passion, and something is pulling you to do work, build your network of support first. Because that’s what get you through all of those valleys.”
As for the impact Stockbox is making on the community in turn, the evidence is at hand. “We set up our own impact calculator based on our mission as a company to impact food, customer experience and the community. We’re setting the baselines from last year’s work.”
“I feel like we’re in a really good place now. We’ve failed, we’ve learned, we’ve changed, we failed some more… and learned. And we continue that learning process.”
Like what you read? Learn more and contact Carrie at stockboxgrocers.com!