While he takes pride in his roots, Priest Hughes said it saddens him to see a staple of life — fresh food — become so difficult to attain in parts of Kansas City.
Over the course of a decade, Hughes has noticed several grocery stores in his neighborhood close at an alarming rate. Purchasing fresh, affordable food is an endeavor that’s become increasingly difficult in east Kansas City, making parts of it a food desert, he said.
“The neighborhood I live in now, if I want to have some decent food it’s a 5-mile drive in any direction,” Hughes said. “It’s even more difficult if you prefer fresh, quality food.”
Hughes said that growing up, his mother preferred to not own a vehicle, prompting their family to walk to the grocery store. He added that he doesn’t envy the pain families go through now to find nearby fresh food.
“We were lucky,” Hughes said. “Trying to carry home food on the bus for four people can be a challenge. Now, (people in my neighborhood) you either have to catch the bus to the nearest grocery store and take a cab back, or go through the extra challenge of holding all those bags for two hours until you get home.”
This challenge inspired Hughes — as well as co-founders Natasha Ria El-Scari, Jessica Royer, and Jason Kelso — to create Rollin’ Grocer, a mobile grocery store.
The nearly 250 square-foot vehicle makes stops at various food deserts throughout the metro, selling fresh and affordable food a short walking distance away from those who need it. Rollin’ Grocer currently carries over 760 food products and serves up to 100 customers per day.
Hughes said that the truck is much more spacious than people might initially expect.
“We’re not a convenience store or a food truck,” Hughes said. “You can come in and buy chicken, meat, orange juice, fresh fruits and vegetables, paper plates, napkins. It’s almost like if you would picture an RV. There’s space down the middle for two people to pass each other and you can walk around.”
Rollin’ Grocer makes stops in multiple neighborhoods per day. As opposed to the traditional brick and mortar store, Hughes said that a mobile grocery store allows the firm to reach even more customers.
“Mobility allows us to be in more than one area over the course of the day or a week or a month,” Hughes said. “If we did a brick and mortar then sure, it’d help some people in this area — but then what about this other area over here? There was area after area in need.”
Last week, Rollin’ Grocer was the winner of the UPS Store’s Small Biz Salute competition taking home a $5,000 prize.
Hughes said this win marks the firm’s first injection of outside capital, which has inspired the team to do more in the future.
“At the beginning, I was nervous because I had no idea what was going to happen,” Hughes said. “Winning felt really encouraging for what we are trying to do, there was a strong sense of accomplishment.”
Founded in 2016, Rollin’ Grocer currently has 20 employees, Hughes said. He hopes the firm will become an asset that will help grow the community.
“I’ve always been a person who believed that if your neighborhood is bad, make it better,” Hughes said. “You don’t have to move away to find a better neighborhood, you can be better in your neighborhood and then your neighborhood will be a better place.”
The Small Biz Salute competition is a part of the UPS Store’s national effort to engage with the small business community. Although in its third year, the contest marked the first year Kansas City served as a location.
“We looked at different criteria when selecting our cities and Kansas City really rose to the top as being a small-business-friendly destination,” said Nicole Cox, public relations supervisor at the UPS store. “It’s affordable to start a small business in Kansas City, there’s a large concentration of small businesses and entrepreneurs and a lot of resources available.”
Similar events were held this year in Denver and Portland, but Cox said the UPS store was pleasantly surprised with Kansas City’s turnout. The event garnered about 150 attendees and 45 pitch participants.
“We were also pleasantly surprised by how eager the small business owners were to network with each other and to share tips and best practices,” Cox said. “Also, we were surprised by the friendliness of the small business owners, the enthusiasm and the support that we received from local organizations that assist small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs. We felt very welcomed.”
For photos of the mobile grocery store, see below.