Cartfuls of HEART

Imagine a market just steps from your door where neighbors are toasting one another’s health with organic wines in a softly-lit tasting room, where a study group in the corner café sips Amazon-free gourmet coffees, lattes, cappuccinos and frappes whipped up by a state-of-the-art machine at the touch of a button while a chef demonstrates the proper technique to prepare exotic organic vegetables, and an iPad-wielding manager deftly bags and checks out customers standing in line so they don’t have to wait, where you can acquire pretty much any household item carried by the big box chain across town.

It’s as idyllic a picture of 21st-century American grocery shopping as one can imagine. And it’s smack dab in the middle of what was—before it opened—a food desert, where residents lacked access to fresh fruits and vegetables and other whole foods, in one of the poorest ZIP codes in town.

This isn’t a cruel way to taunt economically disadvantaged folks with sundries they can only afford on a rare splurge; everything on the shelves of this market has prices comparable, often even lower, than a discount grocer.

Welcome to BuyGO. It’s a grocery store with a purpose: Improve people’s lives and health. It’s built on the idea that well-being should not rise and fall with income.

Co-founder Randy Bowman knows firsthand the impact that poor nutrition can have. Youthful and naturally thin with seemingly boundless energy, the former track star comes across as the type who might go a lifetime without ever getting sick. To look at him, you’d never guess that he grew up in a food desert, subsisting on highly processed foods full of refined carbohydrates and saturated fats until his diet almost cost Bowman his life. Before he even cracked 30, he was rushed to the hospital in acute distress. His gallbladder was failing; it essentially disintegrated inside his body. Doctors said that without immediate medical intervention, he would not have survived the night.

The experience was nothing short of cathartic. Rather than merely applying what he’d learned about the impact poor nutrition can have on even a seemingly healthy person, Bowman, who worked for Dollar General corporate for several years, decided to help those who don’t have the opportunity to maintain a proper diet even if they want to: people who live in neighborhoods without a grocery store, otherwise known as food deserts.

In September 2015, Bowman and partner Michael Smith opened a small-scale BuyGO on South Eighth Street in Fernandina Beach to test the concept. It was a resounding success.

After months of tweaking and refining their vision, they shuttered the test location and went all in on their dream.

“If we were going to do this, we were going to have to come up with a national distributor,” said Bowman, standing in the 5,000-square-foot unfinished store in August.

Though the varieties of individual items will necessarily be more limited than those found on a large grocer’s shelf, don’t expect inferior quality. If a product doesn’t taste good, if the customers don’t like it, it’s gone—no matter the profit margin.

Bowman quipped, “We are a for-profit with a nonprofit mission.”

Working with a national distributor—KeHE Distributors, which also supplies Publix and Trader Joe’s—means they’re able to pick and choose among 30,000 products, looking for the lowest price and highest quality. “We have many manufacturers fighting to be on our shelves because they’re the only one,” Bowman said.

Over Labor Day weekend, the first permanent location of BuyGO opened on South Eighth Street, steps from the test storefront. It reminds one of what might happen if a mom-and-pop bodega married a Fresh Market and had a beautiful baby: Beneath the shade of an enormous live oak, you’ll find everything you need, organic, non-GMO, clean foods, local produce, household essentials that are chock full of safe, natural and gentle ingredients, be it detergent, lotion, sugar, cereal or beer.

It’s the corner grocer of the future. Soon, one might open in your neighborhood.

They have plans to open two more BuyGOs in Jacksonville in the next year, in Moncrief and Springfield, both areas with abominable access to fresh, whole foods. There’s no mistaking the feeling in Bowman’s voice when he says that the neighborhood they’ll serve in Moncrief hasn’t had a grocery store in about 20 years—an entire generation—and that some people who live there have told them that they spend two hours on public transportation just to buy groceries.

“We’re working with a developer to bring back what they’re missing,” he said.

Keeping with their commitment to improving the lives of the community that BuyGOs belong to, for each location, the couple has chosen to rehabilitate old, neglected buildings that may have stood empty for many years. The Fernandina storefront dates back to 1948, the Springfield location on Seventh and Main Street was built in the 1800s.

It’s not just a warm fuzzy; it’s a savvy business decision. Because they sign long-term leases rather than buy the property, each owner can apply for grants and low-interest loans that incentivize development in blighted communities.

They’re also working to adjust to the needs and preferences of the community. For instance, Moncrief has a substantial Ethiopian population, so they plan to offer items to which the community is accustomed. It may lack the dizzying array of a Super Walmart or Winn-Dixie—you won’t find 100 types of cereal, snacks and sodas—but you will find plenty of heart.

“We’re small in concept, [but] we’re giving our customers the same variety… everything you need to make a complete meal, makeup, do the laundry,” said Bowman.