A grocery aisle could be rolling into a neighborhood near you.
"We're working on opening a mobile grocery store," said Katie Plohocky, chair of the Tulsa Food Security Council, a community advocacy group. Plans are to begin the venture in May, she said, with funding from the Helmerich Foundation.
Some details still need to be worked out -- like a name -- but Plohocky said a horse trailer may be stocked "like one aisle of a grocery store, but it would have a freezer. It would have refrigeration."
The store-on-wheels won't have candy bars near the counter, with a focus instead on bringing grocery basics to underserved neighborhoods and locations in Tulsa, Plohocky said.
"It will have dedicated stops at a specific time and specific dates," said Plohocky, with possible layover locations at apartments and senior centers.
The move is but one response to a question that has vexed parts of Tulsa: How do we get a store that we want close to where we live?
Downtown residents remain without a grocery outlet, for example, even though since last summer five food store openings have either taken place or are scheduled in south Tulsa and in Jenks and Bixby.
That's not to say there hasn't been some movement on new ventures elsewhere.
In the northern part of the city, the Gateway Market at East Pine Street and North Peoria Avenue opened with some fanfare in 2010.
Blake Ewing, a city councilor and restaurateur, confirmed that plans are moving forward for his Archer Market in the Brady Arts District downtown.
"I'd look for us to open this spring" Ewing wrote in an email.
But the market will be about the size of a convenience store, so it won't have the stock of a supermarket like Reasor's.
An organization affiliated with the Tulsa Regional Chamber, Tulsa's Young Professionals, has been lobbying for a Trader Joe's grocery store to come to Tulsa.
Trader Joe’s Pop-up Store
Brian Paschal, the organization's executive director, said the campaign came after a survey of members asking what retailer they would like to see in Tulsa.
But along with attracting the chain, Paschal said the effort is focused on two things: spotlighting the demand for a grocery store downtown and highlighting the possible need for change to the state's liquor laws.
Unlike other states, Oklahoma grocery stores cannot legally sell wine. Also, grocers cannot sell beer with an alcohol concentration greater than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight, though experts say this differs only slightly from most beer sold in states without such a restriction.
Trader Joe's, in particular, is a well-known wine retailer. As part of the effort, Paschal said more than 200 members agreed to purchase items as part of a pop-up shop set-up.
Members traveled to a Trader Joe's store in Kansas City and returned with the items to distribute them on Feb. 16. That afternoon, a line of several dozen people stretched well into the street, with the organization distributing free samples of peanut butter and hummus.
Also made available were form letters to lawmakers asking them to reconsider Oklahoma's liquor laws; a ballot measure could come in 2014.
"We're not expecting Trader Joe's to immediately come to Tulsa as a result of our effort," Paschal said, describing how the store communicated to the TYPros group that the chain has already expanded more than they expected to in recent years.
Instead, the goal of the organization is "really starting a debate." Paschal said that, from the grocery stores' perspective, downtown has a "chicken and the egg issue."
"We don't have enough of those households right now to get a full-scale grocery store in there," Paschal said.
Demographics play the largest role in deciding where to locate a store, confirmed Rob Koch, senior director of real estate for North Carolina-based The Fresh Market, which opened a Tulsa store in July at East 81st Street and South Yale Avenue.
Companies typically rely on internal or external market research analysts, he said.
"We have a customer profile we've created over the years based on the folks that are shopping our stores," Koch said, listing "lifestyles variables, spending variables" as information studied when mulling where to put a store.
"So you kind of create this tapestry of the profile of your customer. In simple terms, you go out and find out where they live," Koch said, adding that there's plenty to data collected by credit card companies and market research companies.
The company also scouts an area in person to make sure it corresponds with their expectations.
"Certainly, the health of the Tulsa market, the density, we felt very comfortable that Tulsa would support at least one store," Koch said.
Mike Griffeth, store manager for Petty's Fine Foods in Utica Square, a longtime local retailer for about seven decades, said that while the store always considers new opportunities, a downtown store is unlikely.
"We think that the market's still a little bit unstable for us. We want to win in our own backyard," Griffeth said.
Koch said the company certainly pays attention to grassroots efforts to woo a store to a city.
However, "I think at the end of a day, as much as a city or community wants you, that's not going to influence how people spend their dollars once you open," Koch said.
Plohecky said competition is fierce in the grocery business.
"A lot of the small mom-and-pops have closed their doors," Plohecky said, noting that few small stores can meet the minimum buy-in requirements set by wholesalers.
"The margin on groceries is extremely small. ... It's the prepared foods and the higher-end products that really make grocery stores their money," Plohecky said, calling the plethora of stores in the south Tulsa "frustrating" as her group works to bring stores to less well-served areas.
Part of the mobile grocery effort will involve collecting sales data to show just what is possible in certain neighborhoods, she said.
Then, armed with such data, "maybe we can find a business owner or entrepreneur to open up a location in that neighborhood," Plohecky said.
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