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Salvation Army DMG Grocery Store

The Freshest Ideas Are in Small Grocery Stores

As big supermarkets struggle, a new crop of local grocery stores are innovating to serve niche audiences and advance social causes. Maj. Gene Hogg, the Salvation Army’s commander for central Maryland, organized mobile kitchens after the twin towers fell in Manhattan and the levees broke in New Orleans. He fed protesters and police officers during the riots that erupted here in 2015 after a young man named Freddie Gray died of injuries he received while in the back of a police van. More than 200 businesses were destroyed, many of them places where people bought food.

Once the city calmed down, he pondered his next move. After three days of prayer and fasting, Mr. Hogg had an answer.

“God said I needed to open a grocery store,” he said.

It wasn’t exactly what he had hoped to hear. What Mr. Hogg, 56, knew about grocery stores he could have scribbled on the back of receipt.

Now, three years later, he can talk about produce and Pop-Tarts like a pro. On a recent Friday afternoon he bounded around the aisles of DMG Foods, a bright, 7,000-square-foot, nonprofit grocery store, showing a customer with a baby how to print a coupon and encouraging another to try the freshly ground chicken.

The market, which opened in March in a working-class neighborhood three miles from where the riots began, is one of a growing number of experimental grocery stores that have emerged as traditional supermarkets confront a crisis that industry analysts say could surpass the retail apocalypse that pounded shopping malls a decade ago.

Violesia Tull shops at DMG Foods, which is slowly changing its inventory to match the needs of shoppers from the neighborhood. Premade salads, fried chicken and tofu are new additions.CreditAndrew Mangum for The New York Times
Maj. Gene Hogg of the Salvation Army was the driving force behind DMG, despite the fact he knew nothing about the supermarket business when he started the project. “God said I needed to open a grocery store,” he said.CreditAndrew Mangum for The New York Times

Most North Americans still buy their food at the classic supermarket, with its wide aisles and seemingly limitless choices. But stores like Kroger, the nation’s largest chain with more than $105 billion in sales in 2017, are being cannibalized by a host of discount competitors like Dollar General and Aldion one side, and by the growing dominance of Amazon and online delivery on the other.

“By and large, supermarkets are kind of behind the eight ball” in responding to changes in how people shop, said Diana Smith, the associate director of retail and apparel for the market research company Mintel.

Customers, especially younger ones, want stores that offer what some industry analysts have come to call “food experiences,” with craft beer on tap, meals to go and vegetable butchers. They tend to shop only when they cook, visiting more than one store to collect ingredients, rather than making a weekly trip to stock the pantry with toilet paper, chuck roast and gallons of milk.

Large chains are throwing everything they can at the problem, planning smaller stores customized for different demographics. Kroger, which already sells clothes at some of its stores, has developed a grab-and-go fashion line called Dip, and is testing driverless delivery. The Midwestern chain Hy-Vee is adding medical clinics and spa-inspired bath boutiques to its stores.

But some of the most radical reinvention is happening at the local level, in both cities and small towns, where a new breed of small community stores use the grocery aisles to fill cultural niches and address social needs.

“There’s a lot of innovation that is geared toward bringing people together and back to their food, which is the opposite of the order-your-food-online thing,” said Brianne Miller, 30, the founder and chief operating officer of Nada, a package-free grocery store she opened in June near downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, with her business partner, Paula Amiama.

At Nada, everything, including toothpaste and chocolate, is sold package-free. Shoppers can buy scoops of frozen berries, a handful of crackers and just one egg, if that’s all they need. There’s no plastic wrap or paper at the deli counter. Customers bring their own containers, buy reusable ones at the store or take some from a stack that have been cleaned and sanitized, using a digital scale to weigh and tag them before they start shopping.

The store won’t be equipped to sell fresh meat, but will soon add cured meats and more frozen seafood (caught in a sustainable way, of course). Suppliers, too, have to be willing to reduce waste: A local coffee roaster, for example, delivers beans in refillable bulk containers.

There’s a similar store, Zero Market, in Denver, and one called the Fillery planned for Brooklyn. No-waste stores are already popular in parts of Europe, and are popping up in other Canadian cities.

Salvation Army, DMG Foods is a platform for their efforts on workforce development, nutrition and food education. DMG stands for...

Inside DMG Foods, the Salvation Army’s grocery store in Harwood

Earlier this spring, the Salvation Army opened its first-ever grocery store, DMG Foods, in Harwood, a new direction for their mission being tried out right here in Baltimore.

“Because the Salvation Army has always been involved in food delivery,” explains Maj. Gene Hogg, “it seemed like a natural progression to try to fit into a larger sustainability program on food insecurity within the food desert.”

Hogg, who is a Central Maryland area commander for the Salvation Army, along with his wife Rebecca, says he’s not aiming to make the most money or use the store as a “fundraising mechanism.” But it’s not a food aid program either.

For Hogg and the Salvation Army, DMG Foods is a platform for their efforts on workforce development, nutrition and food education. DMG stands for “Doing the Most Good,” the motto of the Christian service organization.

“We don’t anticipate making a profit,” Hogg says. “And if there’s any money left on the table, then that goes over to another program we offer in the Maryland area called Catherine’s Cottage,” a standalone program for women who have been rescued from human trafficking.

The hope is that people in a roughly quarter-mile radius of DMG will no longer have to take a long bus ride to reach a discount grocery store. The closest Aldi is about six miles away.

“When you’re living in the suburbs, that doesn’t feel like a very long way,” Hogg says. “But when you’re living in an inner city and you have to rely on public transportation, that can be a trip.”

And the prices at DMG are lower than at conventional grocery stores. Read our price comparison of common items at DMG, Safeway, and Aldi here.

Another aim of the store is what Hogg calls the 360 effect.

“You come in the door, you see a meal solution,” he says, referring to the pre-made meal plans DMG is working on. An electronic kiosk already in place will supply pricing and nutritional information. With help from local chefs and culinary students, they hope to have samples of the meals available to try.

“You taste it, you get the menu… We select one of those menus and the chef will show you how to cook it and how to present it. And then maybe you’ll take that home and cook it in your house. Because one of the goals is to strengthen the family table. One of the strongest anchors of family is the dinner table.”

One area where DMG does dabble in direct food aid is through a partnership with the Maryland Food Bank. Under the agreement, customers who self-identify as recipients of SNAP or other food subsidy programs when they sign up for the store’s loyalty card get a different kind of card. It looks the same as the normal loyalty card, but when you scan it on the electronic kiosk, a window pops up with items from the food bank that the customer can take for free.

“I can get 10 pounds of chicken out once a month to those families,” Hogg says. “That’s five dinners.”

What’s on the shelves now is DMG’s “first best guess,” based on the market studies they did. But as shoppers start to come in and become regulars, the store is changing what it offers. It’s already added Goya products and tofu to the lineup, Hogg says, “and we think the next step will be bulk food items.”