The TROSA Grocery is near a prominent corner in a neighborhood that otherwise would not have a market within walking distance. Nonetheless, TROSA Grocery owners announced last week that it will soon close.
"We lost over $100,000 out of our own operating costs," said Jeff Stern, TROSA director of special projects. The store was supported through donations, too, including a rent-free arrangement from the building's owners, Joseph and Elaine Bushfan and former city councilman Dan Hill.
The small-scale grocery opened in May 2010 on the corner of Angier Avenue and Driver Street, offering fresh meats and produce, canned goods and other staples to the East Durham neighborhood. The majority of customers walked there to shop for their food.
Last November, Stern, who oversees the grocery, told the Indy that the store was still trying to break even. TROSA President Kevin McDonald confirmed that it never did.
When TROSA Grocery opened, national statistics ranked North Carolina among the top 10 hungry states, with more than 13 percent of its residents listed as food-insecure. The most recent statistics from 2011 show an increase, with more than 18 percent of North Carolina residents lacking access to fresh food within a quarter-mile walking distance.
The grocery lacked the space to stock a wider range of products and, in turn, customers outside the neighborhood didn't shop there. Efforts to increase business included weekly specials, which were listed on flyers distributed door-to-door in East Durham. Stern says the grocery did have "a lot of regular, loyal customers. A lot of people did change their shopping habits in order to support this store."
But the economies of scale—large chains can more cheaply buy goods than small stores—was part of the TROSA Grocery's undoing.
"We stuck it out," McDonald said. "You could go to Walmart and get cereal cheaper than we can buy it from the purveyor that was selling it to us because we are small."
Hill and the Bushfans, who own the adjacent Joe's Diner, began community businesses in East Durham through a Neighborhood Commercial Revitalization grant from the city. TROSA was a good match for their vision. The long-term, residential substance abuse recovery program runs several successful businesses in Durham—including a frame shop and a moving business—and employs members of TROSA's rehabilitation and job training program.
Hill and the Bushfans hope to bring in another market to the space. Joseph Bushfan also mentioned the idea of providing a commissary kitchen for food trucks and other small food businesses. "It's hard to attract any of the big companies to come into a low-income, low-wealth community," said Hill, who won a 2010 Citizen Award from the Indy for his work on the TROSA Grocery. "And to find those companies that have the social interest in being part of community change is hard. But we'd love to be able to find another grocery operator. One of the disadvantages TROSA had was they had never been in the grocery business before. It is a hard business. The profit margins, even when business is good, are so slim. To attract a grocer in here is going to require people that care a lot about making a change in the community."
Joe's Diner continues to provide a diverse set of customers with hot meals and a sense of community. Three years ago, says Bushfan, crime and gang activity would have deterred many people from venturing to that corner. Now people "eat with their feet," he says. He has already begun to cook outside on a four-foot wide grill to encourage the community to eat together. The menu includes ribs and fresh vegetable sides.
"You shouldn't wait for something crucial to happen to get to know your neighbor," he says. "[Through food] we are aiming to make a loving community."
An official closing date has not been announced. On May 12, TROSA Grocery will host a public yard sale in its back parking lot and a clearance sale within the store.