Jubilee Food Market opened one year ago at North 15th Street and Colcord Avenue. It became an oasis in a food desert, offering neighbors, including many on fixed incomes, an alternative to nearby convenience stores.
Orlando Gonzalez, 32, visited Jubilee days after it opened around Thanksgiving 2016, “went there to check it out, liked it and have been going back ever since,” he said. “It’s closer to where I live on West Avenue, the prices are reasonable, and the people there are amazing.”
That’s the response Mission Waco executive director Jimmy Dorrell envisioned when he launched a fundraising campaign to convert a decades-old Safeway building into a market carrying staples, canned goods, meat and fresh vegetables competitively priced.
Months of securing $900,000 in cash gifts, as well as donations of material, expertise and sweat equity, produced Jubilee Food Market. The store hosted a soft opening in late November, and upward of 175 people attended a grand opening ceremony Dec.1.
Contractors, grocery planners, dignitaries and even a representative from H-E-B, the dominant grocery chain locally, gathered on a crisp morning to celebrate the achievement.
Dorrell, facing cold reality, predicted three years would pass before Jubilee, which operates as a nonprofit, would break even. A good cause, absolutely, but that fact would not necessarily mean discounts from grocery wholesalers or service providers, Dorrell said.
“We have lost a little more than $100,000 our first year,” said Darrell Wickert, a 25-year veteran of managing Family Dollar stores who came out of retirement to shepherd the fortunes of Jubilee.
Wickert said donations to Mission Waco will keep the store operating until it becomes self-sufficient. Dorrell already is planning fund drives.
Almost 150 customers venture inside the neat, well-stocked store each day, their arrival announced by the ring of a bell. Sodas are stacked to the right of the main entrance, candies and Little Debbie snacks are strategically placed near the twin registers. They shout “impulse buy.”
Near the back exit, shoppers can avail themselves of fresh fruit and vegetables. Items including basil, Swiss chard, cilantro and Romaine lettuce come courtesy of the Urban Reap aquaponic system and greenhouse that hugs the north wall of Jubilee.
“Our top sellers are avocados and bananas in the produce section,” Wickert said. “In the meat area, we sell a lot of sausage and hamburger meat, which is lower than H-E-B’s hamburger at $2.59 to $2.79 a pound.”
Every two weeks, volunteers scatter into the neighborhood to distribute flyers that tout special discounts at Jubilee. A can of Libby’s green beans that typically sells for $1.39 may hit the shelves with a 65-cent price. Promotions usually feature 24 discounted items, Wickert said.
Crunching numbers, the manager said each transaction in Jubilee’s first few months fetched it about $7.15 on average. That figure has been slowly but surely climbing to near $9 per transaction. Still, that pales in comparison to the norm of $30 or more per transaction among big-name chains Wickert is familiar with, he said.
He predicts Jubilee will slash that $100,000 deficit in half next year, noting that sales are climbing 3.5 to 4 percent each month. Jubilee already boasts a Facebook presence and will take horn-tooting up a notch by taking its message to Instagram and Skype, which are popular with students.
“Last month, the store made $47,000, but for the most part, we’ve been running closer to $30,000 a month, or about $1,000 a day,” Wickert said. “We need at least $1,700 a day to come out even.”
Dorrell said Jubilee strives to serve people who live near the store, many who live in low-income households, by offering them discounts.
“Our biggest challenge is getting middle-class people over here,” he said. “It took us 12 years to get that demographic to visit World Cup Cafe, where we broke even last year for the first time. Now the cafe is recognized as a top breakfast destination on Trip Advisor.”
Jubilee accepts most methods of payment, including food stamps. It offers an Oasis card that entitles holders to a $5 credit for every $25 they spend. And a Spanish-speaking employee usually is on the premises.
Shoppers wanting to support the Jubilee and Mission Waco cause can choose to “round up” their grocery bill to the nearest dollar, Dorrell said.
“I run into people all the time who visit us faithfully, but there are others who don’t even know we’re here. It’s a publicity thing that we must address,” Dorrell said. “I’ve yet to meet a disgruntled customer, someone wanting to complain. If we don’t have something you want, we can get it. We have tried to be responsive to community needs.”
Wickert said Jubilee has added a section targeting Hispanic shoppers, “and we plan to carry seasonal items starting with Valentine’s Day, when we will have a line of candy, and we will stock Easter baskets later. We may even stock up with garden hoses when summer rolls around.”
Jubilee employs seven people and provides work for a handful of volunteers. Its payroll totals about $2,000 a week and $104,000 a year, about the size of the deficit the store ran in its first year.
“Believe me, no one here is overpaid,” Wickert said. “But the fact is, grocery stores enjoy a very small profit margin, and we are operating in an area of depressed income that requires us to offer competitive prices. We may be higher than the big guys on some stuff, but lower on other.”
A frustration of Wickert’s is that Jubilee has little control over pricing for non-food items such as over-the-counter medicine, laundry detergent, paper goods and cleaning supplies, he said. Thus, sales among those are sluggish.
The store hopes to boost business by offering more buy-one-get-one-free promotions. And borrowing a tactic used at H-E-B, it may include complementary products at no charge when the centerpiece of a meal is bought. The purchase of chili meat, for example, may trigger qualifying for spices and a can of tomato sauce, Wickert said.
“We’re getting there. We may not be getting there quite as fast as we’d hoped, but we’re getting there,” Dorrell said. “I wish people would realize what a difference they could make by visiting us just once among their many trips to the grocery store or to run errands.”