The founder of Rapoport Academy and Lula Jane’s bakery is expanding her mission to revitalize East Waco, this time in the form of a nonprofit food market.
Nancy Grayson closed this week on a building at 704 Elm Ave., which she intends to turn into Elm Avenue Food Market. She said it would provide an oasis of healthy food in the “food desert” of East Waco.
“It’s not a grocery store. It’s a market,” Grayson said Tuesday. “We won’t be selling chips, soda and candy. That’s available at other places in the neighborhood. The real adventure here is selling fresh fruits and vegetables, plus milk, cheese and eggs — the basics of what people need.”
Grayson said she hasn’t yet hammered out the details of the venture — hours of operation, costs of renovation and operation, supply logistics and exact inventory. What she has is a vision and determination, and she plans to work with Baylor University business school faculty and students on a business plan.
Grayson said her lack of experience in the grocery business doesn’t bother her, nor does the daunting economics of running a food store in an inner-city neighborhood. She said the idea of building a bakery on Elm Avenue might have seemed a tall order a few years ago, but it has been successful even without advertising.
“My thinking as always is that it’s OK not to make money,” she said. “But I’m not looking to develop a market that will lose money.”
Grayson has been working for the last few years with Baylor’s entrepreneurship program on the idea of a new Elm Avenue venture, and last year, students researched sources of grant funds for the food market.
Marlene Reed, a Baylor “entrepreneur in residence” and senior business lecturer, is spearheading the project on the Baylor side.
“For about three years, we have been looking at Elm and dreaming along with others who were interested in that avenue,” Reed said.
Grayson’s proven track record on Elm made her a natural choice, Reed said. She said Baylor’s nutrition program and management logistics are also working on aspects of the project.
Reed said she hopes to start working on a business plan and fundraising in the coming academic year. Her students will do a walk-through of the building later this week.
“Many students never get contact with the real world to try out the theories they learn,” she said. “Here’s an opportunity to put something together for a real nonprofit business. It’s not only getting their feet wet, but when they come back as alums, they can drive to Elm and say, ‘I had a part in this place.’ ”
Reed said she’s excited about the opportunity to improve the lives and nutrition of people in a part of town with limited transportation options and distant grocery facilities. The closest supermarket from 704 Elm Ave. is the Bellmead H-E-B, which is 2 miles away and all but inaccessible on foot.
In recent years, the last supermarkets in inner-city Waco have moved out. In response, Mission Waco last fall opened Jubilee Market, a nonprofit grocery store on North 15th Street, and this month it opened an aquaponics greenhouse to grow produce in-house.
There’s no place like home, the adage goes, and for a number of Waco chefs, cooks and eaters…
Grayson said this will be a smaller venture but will also likely include local produce, possibly with space for home gardeners to sell their own surplus veggies.
Grayson bought a building that was built in 1932 as Gus Levy’s Grocery and Market. For most of the the last 36 years it has housed housed Community Baptist Church and Community Training Center, which offered after-school tutoring. The ministry’s director, the Rev. Gladstone Knight, retired last January for health reasons.
Grayson had inquired several years before about buying the building but was turned down. This time, the Knight family approached her about buying it the same week she sent a letter to Knight inquiring again about the building.
Knight’s son, Tim Knight, said his father likes the idea of a food mart to serve the community and believes Grayson is the one to do it.
“We felt she already has established Rapoport and was established in the community,” he said, sitting Tuesday at Grayson’s bakery, two blocks from the future market site. “That and the fact she had Lula Jane’s and was one of the few people doing anything on Elm Street was really a deciding factor.”
Grayson has promised to name the building in honor of Gladstone Knight. She said the building is in remarkably good shape, but she has hired an architect to oversee a thorough renovation.
She aims to create a space to lease as a bistro to provide another revenue stream for the nonprofit market, and she intends to remove some of the bricked-in sections of façade in order to create a shaded porch.
Grayson envisions that porch as a place where neighbors can drink free coffee and play dominoes.
She also has designs for the basketball court that already exists behind the building.
“It could be a community drawing card,” she said. “I can see the possibility of having a free movie night on Elm.”