I listened to a radio interview with a gentleman who owns and operates seven grocery stores in some of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods. Many impoverished communities don’t have local grocery stores or other business anchors. These urban “food deserts” lack fully stocked supermarkets with fresh produce and competitive prices. Residents are forced to either shop at convenience marts and dollar stores or take public transportation into different areas to buy food and other necessities for their families.

But, in these markets where many entrepreneurs failed, Jeff Brown, CEO of Brown’s Super Stores, found success. When asked why he ventured into areas others chose to avoid, his response, in part, was simply that these communities needed their own local retailers and he considered it an opportunity to positively impact people’s lives. But, he also wanted to prove that success could be achieved when you do the legwork to understand your market:

“We’ve been doing food desert work for more than 15 years. And we think that part of the problem is misunderstanding how to operate in food deserts and misunderstanding the challenge of the economics and how to mitigate that challenge. And, we’ve been very successful continuing to improve on those two themes.”

How listening and learning yielded a model of success.

Before buying land, Jeff held town hall meetings with the residents to understand who they are. He found that different neighborhoods were comprised of different people. Some were heavily populated by immigrants who had their own beliefs, customs and diets. He overcame language barriers and worked with them to learn what they needed in a grocery store. It turned out that each of his stores would be customized in what they stocked and how they interacted with their customers.

As his previous work with similar communities taught him, Jeff Brown knew there was much more to growing his business than providing goods and services. Towns and neighborhoods need central hubs where people interact and begin to know each other by what they have in common. Jeff recognized this and first sought to make it clear to the residents that they were important to him. He established emotional binds and earned their trust by hiring from within their communities and, thus, creating a cycle of success.

Jeff Brown reaffirmed his mission to operate in under-served areas, help normalize people’s diets and uplift their communities. He delivered on his promise. And, by doing so, he has become a trusted local contributor.

Today, his seven stores are thriving. And Brown’s Super Stores, Inc. has been recognized by numerous local and national media outlets, as well as The White House, for their efforts in expanding healthy food access in poverty-stricken areas. What’s more, Jeff created a non-profit consulting firm to help others start supermarkets in food deserts by sharing his model of success.

Jeff Brown learned how to make a good living … and a big difference.

Whether your business is in a highly competitive or under-served market, the lessons remain the same:

1. Educate yourself about your audience before you venture into any market.
2. Connect emotionally with them to identify ways to bring real value to their lives.
3. Understand that you’re creating an experience that is about community, not just products or services.
4. Remain engaged with your market to uncover ways to continually improve your business model.
5. Deliver on your promises.

Listen to the podcast to learn more about Jeff Brown’s view of the economy and food deserts.

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