Oasis in the Desert

By Kevin Tankersley

Grocery store opens in North Waco

For several years, the North Waco area surrounding Mission Waco has been devoid of any grocery stores. There was a Fiesta Mart at 25th Street and Bosque Boulevard. It closed, and Super Plaza operated at that location for a while, but it’s gone now too. That closure forced a lot of people into a food desert, meaning there’s not a grocery store within one mile of their homes.

With lots of input from neighbors, Jimmy Dorrell — our 2016 Wacoan of the Year, more about him on page 94 — and his “dream team” at Mission Waco decided to take a former convenience store at 15th Street and Colcord Avenue and create Jubilee Food Market, a neighborhood grocery store that is open to all. Dorrell hired Darrell Wickert, who was about to retire from a 45-year career in retail, as manager of the store, which opened December 1. Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley sat down with Dorrell and Wickert in one of the dining rooms at World Cup Café, Mission Waco’s restaurant, to talk about the transformation of the neighborhood and the genesis of the store.

WACOAN: I’m sure it’s pretty obvious, but why did you decide to open a grocery store in your neighborhood?

Dorrell: Quick history — this neighborhood was the wealthier neighborhood back in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. Big houses, suburban — as much as you could be suburban back then. [The Jubilee Market building] was a Safeway [grocery store] built in 1925. When the poor, mostly African-American, began moving across the river in the 1960s, the housing was getting older anyway, and white flight was happening to the suburbs. The neighborhood really flipped badly then.

This shopping center [now the Mission Waco building], which had been beauty shops and the old Texas Theatre where people saw their first movie, this neighborhood became very predatory. We had prostitutes, crack dealers. The old theater became a porno theater. Four bars. Three in here, one next door. [The Safeway] was for a little while a chemical store. They sold warehouse chemicals. Soon after, it became a convenience store. Fiesta [Mart grocery store] moved in, and there was another [after] that, but that was the closest store.

WACOAN: At 25th Street and Bosque?

Dorrell: Yeah. Then [after Super Plaza] closed, the closest store became the 19th Street H-E-B, which is 2.2 miles from here. The neighborhood people had two choices.

I met two women — two grandmothers who live down the street — sweating. They had grandchildren with them, carrying their groceries. They said, ‘Sir, please, whatever you’re doing with this thing, please make a grocery store. We just walked to the H-E-B and back.’ That was before we had our neighborhood meeting.

But the majority of them, they’re just not going to walk that far. They’re going to go to the convenience store and pay three times more for the bread than the value of the bread and buy things they shouldn’t eat. And obesity follows. It was a classic food desert, which by definition if it’s more than a mile to the closest grocery store, it’s considered a food desert.

We watched it from here for a year. I tried for about four years to get [the convenience store owners] to make me a deal. They wanted $300,000. The store value, according to tax records, was $87,000. I just laughed at ’em.

Finally, they had a hole in the roof after a hailstorm. When the rain came through, that was sort of the reality check. He called me, and we talked. It barely worked out. It was a really tough deal. But we bought the building for a fair market price.

Because we’re a Christian community development, our model is the people with the problem need to be a part of the solution to the problem. We don’t just go tell people what they need. We invited the neighborhood to get together. We passed out invitations all over the area. Sixty-five people showed up.

We asked them what they wished this building was. Twelve [different] answers. One teenager wanted an arcade. Seventy-seven percent voted for a grocery store. They wanted that.

And you couldn’t get pizzas or Subways over here in this neighborhood. And, by the way, I met with Pizza Hut last week, and — not because of us — anybody in this neighborhood can now get a pizza, which is a big deal. They wouldn’t come into the neighborhood.

WACOAN: They wouldn’t deliver around here?

Dorrell: Oh, no. For years. Most of the time I’ve lived here they wouldn’t. They do now.

So I knew nothing about grocery stores. Very slowly we built a little team. We had an architect who would volunteer his time. We ended up with 10 men who I call the dream team. We sat and labored, went through it, ended up saying, ‘Let’s go for it.’ We kept hearing that food profit margins were 1 to 2 percent. I’ve gotta break even. I don’t have to make any, but I’ve gotta break even. The risk factor was a big deal.

One of the fun guys for me in this story is Bronscha Harris. He was a neighborhood kid. His sister works for me now in the children’s program. They were in the kids’ program. He is a co-manager of Walmart. He’s now on our board.

We ended up dividing the team into two groups. There was the food group and the construction group — going great, raising money. The budget we put together was $488,000 for the construction. It was a guess. We didn’t really know. Our architect did the plans.

Then we created Oasis Stocks — oasis in the food desert — and it was really amazing to see the response. It was almost like we hit a nerve in some people’s lives. If you talk about welfare, if you talk poverty, for so many people there’s anger, there’s misunderstanding. But somehow that clicked with people who have never given to us. We had local people. I had $300 from a guy in south Florida who found us on the internet and thought it was a great thing. We had some big givers. The Heavins helped us out.

WACOAN: The Heavins from Curves?

Dorrell: Yeah, they have a foundation. They’re in Haiti with Janet right now.

Family Health Center, their foundation gave us money. We ended up doing three corporate grants. PepsiCo gave us $25,000, which was a big deal. Walmart gave us $2,500, and H-E-B gave us $2,500. We bought the freezer space with the $25,000. And we just kept plugging away.

For us, God showed up. It was one of those things where I was overwhelmed by people’s generosity, and people I didn’t even expect to hear from. Probably half the people who gave had never given to Mission Waco. It was a new set of donors as well, which was good. We were afraid that if we were going to do [the store], that [current donors] were going to give there instead of here [at Mission Waco], and we would have been in trouble. It was the tension of not knowing what would happen.

Ed Mazanec showed up. I knew his name because [Mazanec Construction] has been around a long time. He had never been over in this neighborhood to eat, and his son said, ‘Let’s go eat at [D’s Mediterranean Grill].’ He looked up and saw our sign out there. His wife was one of the women who helped in here. He said, ‘I think this is the place where my wife wants me to help.’ He told me, ‘My wife said I’m supposed to help you.’

He’s been a gold mine of a gift to us. He knows everybody. In about three days, the place was full of local contractors that Ed knew. He called them and said, ‘You need to help these people.’ They started helping. The reason we could even do it for what we did is because probably three-fourths of these contractors have given us free or discounted labor and materials at cost. It really became community-based.

Wickert: Ed called Bowen [Electric], and Bowen stepped up.

Dorrell: I’ve gotten connected with a world where I knew names but I didn’t know these people. It’s widened the breadth of our ministry. There’s excitement around this thing that’s citywide.

We have met our goal. When the Gaineses’ thing came in, we had 5 percent more to go, and they committed to that 5 percent. They did the [auction], and it was almost double. It was $50,519. I got the check today actually. With that, we went over our goal.

And some guy gave us a [2002 Ford] Thunderbird that sold this week. Richard Karr agreed to sell it through his used car dealership. Somebody bought it this week. All that was just for construction. And we kept saying between $50,000 and $75,000 for the food. It could be more than that.

We have to fill the store up the first time, then we have to hire the staff. Darrell is officially on staff now. The first payroll or two we have to raise that, because there’s no money coming in yet. We need at least $100,000 more.

But we had two different people who donated match grants. The city put in the budget this year $20,000. So we had the two matching grants, and some more is coming in. We may still have to hustle to get [the rest of the money for the food]. Quite honestly, I won’t know until all the bills are paid where we are on this. I have a really good feeling that that building with all its improvements is going to be paid for and all the food.

WACOAN: You said the nearest grocery store is 2.2 miles away —

Dorrell: And they’re moving further out, over Lake Shore [Drive].

WACOAN: If a person living near here doesn’t have access to a car, how long will a trip to the grocery store normally take?

Dorrell: The bus is about three hours because the routes are so bad in Waco. That’s nothing against the city — it’s just that ridership isn’t what it ought to be. That’s three hours on the bus, not shopping time. And, it must be a 45-minute walk, to an hour.

WACOAN: The Oasis shares. Where did that idea percolate?

Dorrell: Well, I made it up. There was [a similar concept] on the internet I found. The idea had been around for a while, and I thought it would be perfect because of the oasis and the food desert. It just happened. I really didn’t think it would become popular, but it did. We have a certificate we send out. We’ll have a giving tree [mural inside the store], and there will be people’s names based on four levels of giving. It’s our way of saying thank you.

WACOAN: Darrell, how did you get involved in this store? You have a long background in retail, don’t you?

Wickert: Forty-five years. I was fixing to retire next year, in the spring, from Family Dollar. Jimmy just persuaded me. God — through Jimmy Dorrell — persuaded me to come over here, was basically how it happened.

Dorrell: He got on the dream team and started helping us make decisions.

Wickert: We kept on telling him he needed to get a manager, and then finally I said, ‘Well, I can do that.’

Dorrell: Then you had to have the talk with your wife.

WACOAN: What were your retirement plans?

Wickert: Our retirement plans were that we were going to retire and stay here or move to East Texas where her folks live. We were going to travel. You retire, and you travel for a while. Then this came up, and I told Deb. We prayed about it, and she said, ‘OK.’

WACOAN: That sounded like it was a less-than-enthusiastic OK.

Wickert: She worries a lot. I left a really good-paying job at Family Dollar.

Dorrell: Not for a higher-paying job.

WACOAN: Were you a store manager?

Wickert: I had been a store manager [and] a district manager, in the 25 years I had been with them. When I left, I was the training manager. God had been dealing with me on leaving, and with this, everything seemed to keep falling in place. He’ll shut one door and open another. That’s what happened.

Told [my wife], then I was keeping it a secret from Family Dollar for quite a while. I had joined the dream team back in April. I was coming to meetings and everything and was still working at Family Dollar. At one time I told my boss I was helping out with this, and that was fine. Then when I said I would be the manager, I told Deb, and she said, ‘Let’s pray about it.’ She still had a lot of worries about finances and everything else. But that seemed to fall into place in her mind eventually.

WACOAN: Who’s going to be working at the store, besides Darrell? Are you depending on volunteers, or will you have paid staff?

Wickert: We’ll have six or seven paid positions over there. And a lot of volunteers.

Dorrell: Not all full time. Some will be part time.

Wickert: Not counting myself, there will be four full-time people and three part-time people.

Dorrell: We really hope to hire some neighborhood people.

Wickert: Right now I’m talking to one of the guys that’s been through [Mission Waco’s] program that has grocery experience. We’ve been talking with him about maybe coming on as assistant manager. We have another guy in the neighborhood who will be working here doing maintenance, produce, stuff like that.

WACOAN: What’s your projected opening date?

Wickert: Our grand opening will be December 1.

WACOAN: And what will happen at the grand opening?

Wickert: We’re working on that now. We’ll have a ribbon-cutting. There will be giveaways and things like that.

Dorrell: Pizza Hut will be here giving out pizza. I really want this to be a neighborhood ribbon-cutting. It’s for the neighborhood, and we want to give the folks who will be the most blessed by it to be a part of that. We’re working on details now.

WACOAN: Is the store open to everyone? Mission Waco clients? Just folks from the neighborhood?

Wickert: I’m glad you asked that. The store is open to the public. It’s not just this neighborhood. I’ve had tons of people ask me, ‘Can we come and shop there?’ I’ve said, ‘Of course. It’s open to everybody.’ I think a lot of people think that it’s just for this neighborhood.

Dorrell: Or that they’re taking advantage by coming over here.

Wickert: We’ll sell to people from Woodway as well as people from here.

Dorrell: One of the team decisions was that we want to do what we’re probably going to call an Oasis card that will be given to everyone within a mile in every direction. I thought we might start off with that. Our goal is to have a way for the lower-income folks in the area to get the best deal that they can get. The team felt like that’s a good thing, but we can’t start off that way. We’ve got to get this thing going, and we’ll add that.

Wickert: There are too many variables, and dealing with such a small building, the profit margin that we have to deal with to do that at first. I think within six months to a year we’ll be able to hand those cards out, and our system will be more capable of handling that.

Dorrell: And that will also give us access to information for sales or healthy deals. We’re going to have a little section in the store —

Wickert: I gave him a spot in the store.

Dorrell: To do the health education stuff. I had a dentist yesterday that wants to come in maybe once a month. Health and nutrition are a big part of what we’re trying to do, so we’re doing a lot of educating.

WACOAN: You said that you had people asking that if they come shop here, are they taking advantage of a store designed for the lower-income folks in this neighborhood. If people come here to shop, are they taking advantage, or are they supporting the store by shopping here?

Wickert: Them shopping here would actually be supporting it. They’re not taking advantage. They would actually be supporting the community here. The income level of this neighborhood is about $21,000, something like that.

Dorrell: One of the issues we’ll have is, because of the poverty, a lot of our folks receive checks — disability, retirement. If you get your check early in the month, then the last two weeks of the month are tight. [Non-neighborhood people shopping] gives us a little more consistency. We do our toy store and our school supply store and are sensitive to that, because people have money at the start of the month, but they don’t have money by the time Christmas gets here. The public shopping over there would give us a leveling-out effect as well.

Wickert: The store is standing for price and quality. Our prices will be comparable to H-E-B and Walmart. We’re not going to have $1.79 milk like Aldi does. Our price will be comparable to H-E-B. H-E-B sells its lowest-priced milk for $2.39. We’ll be selling ours for $2.79.

Dorrell: The problem over here is we don’t have the buying power. But these suppliers have been really good and appreciate what we’re doing. They’re working with us as best they can.

WACOAN: Will the store carry everything you can find in a conventional grocery store?

Wickert: Yeah. It’ll have produce, fresh meat, frozen foods, dry groceries. The only thing we will not have a large selection of is over-the-counter medicines. We’ll have a small section of health and beauty.

Dorrell: No liquor. No tobacco.

WACOAN: Why not?

Dorrell: We’re standing for health. It’s a healthy store.

WACOAN: What else do I need to know?

Wickert: Our slogan is Eat Well, Live Well.

WACOAN: When you talked to the two ladies out here who had walked to H-E-B, and once you started talking to your neighbors about a grocery store going in here, what were the reactions?

Dorrell: Very excited. I’m still not convinced everybody knows. Everybody we know is excited, rich and poor. I know everybody will show up the first few days, but after it levels out I can only expect it to be great for the neighborhood. I’ve heard nothing negative.

WACOAN: I would think that because Mission Waco has such a good reputation, that people driving home from Baylor to Woodway would come just a few minutes out of their way to shop here.

Dorrell: I’ve had more people tell me that. One, because of purpose. The other, and my wife is one of these, if you go into Walmart or H-E-B, you’ve got to go through this whole store. Here, you can get it and go. You’ve got four or five aisles. It’s not going to take a whole lot of time.

Wickert: It’s a neighborhood grocery store, just like back in the old days.

Join the Conversation