Building something where there's nothing — it's not an easy task, but that's what the members of the Indy Food Cooperative have done.
Pogue's Run Grocer opened five years ago to provide, as its website says, "affordable, fresh, healthy foods" to a neighborhood that had little access to such.
The store has survived and is thriving five years later due to the work of many, at least according to its first general manager Greg Monzel.
"Early on when the co-op began, it was really a community effort," says Monzel. "And people from all over the community here on the near Eastside came together from different backgrounds and different associations and saying, really, we need to have a place in our neighborhood where people can get good, healthy, local food options."
It hasn't been easy, says Monzel, who is currently serving as interim general manager, filling in after the recent departure of longtime general manager Nate Roberts.
"It's definitely a challenge, and we had our work cut out for us, but there's just such a great feeling of community among our members and contributors from the beginning," says Monzel. "It's just a powerful thing to see people come together at a grass roots level and build something where there's nothing."
The near Eastside, along with other areas of the city, has been underserved by traditional retail food outlets, leading to its characterization as a food desert, a problem that the Indy Food Co-op has aimed to address.
"This area is still really a food desert, but we have put a dent in that desert for sure just by being here," says Monzel. "And that was really our mission — to try to alleviate the food desert that's here on the near Eastside, or at least work towards that."
As a cooperative, Pogue's Run Grocer is owned by its members, who vote on business decisions and elect volunteer representatives to the group's board of directors. Member and downtown resident Janet Schneider said Pogue's Run supporters take the mission seriously.
"The food desert issue is something that staff, the board of directors and shoppers really care about," says Schneider, who has also served on the co-op's board. "As members, we ask ourselves if we are doing enough. It's a tough issue because of its complexity."
Schneider said that the development of Pogue's Run Grocer paralleled her own growing awareness of food issues and that as a downtowner for more than 15 years, "I was eager to support a small business that was going into a nearby neighborhood that needed access to fresh food and a bit of positivity."
Customer Service Manager Alan Walker said that Pogue's Run Grocer has definitely been a positive force in the neighborhood.
"People really love this store," he said. "It's a beautiful thing. It's a wonderful thing. A lot of positive energy."
But getting the word out about what the store is and how the member-owned co-op model works hasn't always been easy, Monzel said.
"It's kind of tricky trying to communicate to the neighborhood what we are and what we're doing here because we are a member-based store, and so we have different pricing for some things for members," said Monzel, although anyone can shop at the store.
But members have worked hard over the past five years to get the word out, and that effort has paid off, said Walker.
"I hear quite often people say, 'Yeah, I've been living here for years and I never knew this store was here,'"says Walker. "They're also starting to be educated as far as the benefits from healthy alternatives, and they're beginning to reap the benefits. It's very exciting."
But the past five years have been challenging. Money is always an issue, especially when it comes to infrastructure and equipment.
"The roof leaks," said Walker. "The refrigeration unit might go out, or other items might fail sometimes. I've seen where we've come to a point to say how are we going to get the funds to fix this?"
Schneider also points out the challenges of competition and buying power that are inherent in the grocery business.
Then, she said, "there are the everyday challenges of loitering and littering, a roof and parking lot that need repair, and lack of space and equipment to have a really top-notch deli operation, which is Pogue's best moneymaker. But I think all things considered, Pogue's Run Grocer does a good job in this area, with a fresh salad bar, hot homemade soup station and great, classic sandwiches for not a lot of money."
Walker doesn't diminish the challenges but is optimistic about the viability of the co-op.
"It's been an uphill battle but sales are great, the store has thrived, we're continuing to thrive, and we've overcome a lot of hurdles that most businesses experience," says Walker.
For Pogue's Run Produce Buyer Twon Schroeder, the success of the co-op hinges on the difference between cost and value.
"One of the things we've worked on here is trying to say, 'What is the value associated with it?'" he said. "Because when you get into the value, all of a sudden you have a different perspective of life."
Jolene Ketzenberger covers local food at EatDrinkIndy.com. Follow her on Twitter @JKetzenberger.