Patrick Robinson
Carrie Ferrence is the founder and co-owner of Stockbox Grocers, for now a prototype grocery store concept being tested in its location in the parking lot of the West Haven Apartments at 2201 Holden Street s.w. CLICK THE PHOTO ABOVE TO SEE MORE

SLIDESHOW: Stockbox Grocers is a pocket-sized store meeting a huge need

Stockbox Grocers, a prototype miniature market opened in West Seattle Monday Sept. 12 to provide an oasis of needed grocery items to the Delridge neighborhood, an area identified as a "food desert" meaning the residents there have no easy access to healthy and affordable food within walking or biking distance of their home. The store solves that problem handily. It's right in an apartment complex parking lot.

The concept is from Carrie Ferrence and her partner Jacqueline Gjurgevich who have been working on it as a graduate project from the Bainbridge Graduate Institute. "We were looking for ways to bring food back into the community and make it accessible," said Ferrence, "there were a lot of examples of mobile units going into neighborhoods. We looked at how we could improve on that model. We basically took the wheels off of it and tweaked the business model (...) this allows us to mitigate the two biggest hindrances to grocery stores going into communities which are real estate and ongoing operating costs. We can share space with a community organization or with a business and reduce our rents and reduce our operating costs over the long term."

That meant leasing a reclaimed shipping container, commonly used for office space on construction sites and putting it in the right location. They considered locations in Skyway but the solution found its best fit in West Seattle in 2 and 1/2 spaces of the parking lot of the West Haven Apartments at 2201 s.w. Holden Street. "We literally went door to door to businesses and organizations throughout Delridge and Westhaven responded immediately. They've been a great partner to work with."

Rachel Phinney, the Property Manager said, "She called me and told me about it and at first I thought, 'you're not going to build a store in the middle of my parking lot' but the more she told me I thought it was a great idea. She sent me her business plan so I forwarded it to my company and we thought it was great (...) the residents love it. We sent out a survey to all of our residents via email asking do they like this? Do they have any concerns? (...) They were concerned about parking issues, about people driving through. But we've had just walk up traffic. If someone forgot to get that milk on the way home they can walk out their front door and come and grab it."

The apartment complex has close to 200 units and "there are probably 600 units total within a two block distance," said Ferrence, there's a strong community here and there wasn't a food service for it."

Ferrence explained that for a permanent store it would require approximately 80 to 100 customers per day to make it work, similar to a corner store. This store will only be open until "likely the end of November," as they test out the store design, inventory and systems. They are talking to business owners in the area for a possible permanent location. When they come back, likely this winter it will be for good, though in a larger space.

Within the 160 square feet of space they have managed to get more than 300 items ranging from the bread and milk staples to fresh fruit, chips, snacks and even somewhat exotic items like hummus or polenta or couscous. The biggest seller since they opened has turned out to be orange juice, which they can barely keep in stock. Cottage cheese has also been popular as well as the slightly more costly Dave's Killer Bread. They do not sell alcohol or soda pop, since the emphasis is on healthier foods. The prices are in line with those found at Target, QFC and Safeway. They accept cash and credit cards now (using an innovative app on the iPad) but not food stamps. That's a high priority for the future. They are busily taking notes on what people want to buy and have become something of a magnet for a few area kids who are fascinated by the tiny store.

One customer who stopped by, Anthony Burns, expressed his admiration for the idea. "This is a great idea because most people like convenience. If they need some butter or rice or bread you step right out of your house, or send your kid if they're old enough to get whatever." Another customer Evan said, "It's handy. It's convenient. If you're missing an ingredient it's pretty useful." He said he had a hankering for tortilla chips and salsa, so the store was great for that.

You can 'like' them on Facebook here.

Stockbox Grocers used the website Kickstarter to get their initial funding. The drive, which ended Thursday September 15, raised more than $20,000 in pledges.

Stockbox Grocers is open Monday through Friday from 2 to 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday from 8 am to 8 pm. For now it is the two entrepreneurs running it with helpers, friends, "volunteers and husbands." When they come back, if the idea works as they think it will, they want to expand, hire employees and make it a permanent part of this and other neighborhoods.

"I think what resonates is not the food," said Ferrence, "but what people are excited about is bringing business back into the community. There's so much opportunity to bring business back to where people live."

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