The Wire's Wendell Pierce on Sterling Farms and the economics of food
Wendell Pierce is best known for starring in two of the best television shows ever made: as Detective Bunk Moreland on The Wire, and now as trombonist/teacher Antoine Batiste on Treme, a cinematic and music-filled character study of post-Katrina New Orleans. Like The Wire, Treme explores a constellation of factors that combine to create a range of tough realities in a complex American city -- poverty, violence and corruption, for starters. Yet the show has plenty of joy, most of it found in scenes that celebrate that inexhaustible human capacity for creativity and innovation, played out in a city determined to rebuild and survive.
Creativity and innovation, as well as a strong activist streak, drive Pierce's new venture: Sterling Fresh Foods, a chain of four grocery and convenience stores located in "high risk" urban areas, starting with the Lake Pontchartrain district of New Orleans, where Pierce grew up. And while Pierce's business model is informed by a nationwide dialogue about food and social justice, Sterling Farms is more than a platform for a philanthropic mission. Pierce will be talking about that mission and more during a free public appearance at the University of Colorado Denver on Thursday; in advance of that event, we chatted with Pierce about economics -- and groceries.
Westword: Denver is definitely part of the grassroots movement around food justice and the whole issue of addressing food deserts and bringing fresh fruit and produce to neighborhoods that don't necessarily have access.
Wendell Pierce: It's a problem around the country, and it's not a new problem. There's a continuum to it that you have to kind of fight against. Years of American industry sitting on the sidelines and saying that certain neighborhoods and certain communities are risk-adverse -- even though those communities are populated by consumers who display their loyalty to their products and to their brand and to their stores -- by having to travel to them, because they're not in their community, in their neighborhoods, and all they've asked in return is that that their consumer loyalty is reciprocated by those companies coming and bringing their services to the community, and they continue to stand on the sidelines and say 'no' to it. And so my partners and I decided to step up to the plate. Where they see risk, we see reward -- opportunities to do well, and do good. That's how Sterling Farms was born.
You launched last year. How many stores do you have now?
The parent company is Sterling Fresh Foods, and under that umbrella right now we have four stores total, three convenience stores and one grocery store. In the next year and a half, we're going to add three more C-stores and two more grocery stores, and then we're gonna hold and see where the business is and make a decision about how we expand and where we expand to, in the next eighteen months.
Denver, eventually, we hope...
I'm looking forward to meeting the mayor again there. Over the summer I met him at the Conference of Mayors in Charlotte during the Democratic National Convention, and I saw him again in Washington, and am looking forward to seeing him again this week. My main reason for being at the Conference of Mayors was to let them know that we had launched and were going into different underserved communities.
What kind of response do you get when you talk with people about this issue of food, when there are so many issues around economic disparity? Using New Orleans as an example, there are so many root causes of oppression and different things that go on. Obviously Katrina brought so much of it to the surface, literally....
The disaster was just lifting the veil of something that is there, that is always there. We know the things that contributed to it. We have great advocacy groups around the country, people who are aware when it comes to economic disparity and other socio-economic issues and their impact on people's lives and communities. The wonderful conferences where people sit in plenary sessions and strategize about how to attack these plans and the underyling root causes of some of the issues that we're dealing with. Ultimately, it's all talk. It's great, and one thing I've discovered, we have to be careful that we don't become experts in really talking and strategizing and engaging and advocacy, because then we kind of lose sight.
One thing that surprised me the most about opening this business is the fact that we have so many people who have approached it and said, "Okay, yeah, but Wendell, there's issues of food justice and when you look at this particular neighborhood and that particular neighborhood, what are the underlying factors and how does your store impact that?" I say, "I opened a store." That's how I impacted; that's how I address it. We have to get out of the habit of identifying and strategizing and talking about it. I always love it when I go do different conferences and the take-aways are: We're going to meet next month.
Form a committee.
Right. So, you have these underserved communities where American business chooses not to come, and then you have this wonderful network of advocacy and money and focus, and energy of people that never build anything in those communities. I love to talk with people and say, "The money it took to put together this three-day summit, and the economic impact that we're going to drop on getting to and from the hotel, to the convention center, and when we all flew in here and flew out -- if you just took the economic footprint of this, you could have opened a business in an underserved community." So we have to be careful of that.
I was talking to some community garden leaders, and I said, "Man, this is great that you built this. And it's wonderful that you've been doing this for so long. It's great that you give the produce away to the pantries and bring kids in to learn how to do it and all that. But ten years down the road, there should be a store here, where this garden supplies a store that is in the community that's in need of fresh produce, which then creates an economic engine, because you just gave forty jobs to the community."
Then you can break the cycle of just having that one block in the neighborhood growing vegetables: It's a great marketing tool. It's a great educational tool. That is the next step that has to be taken, especially when I'm speaking to students. I always say, "Your job in this forum is to discuss and engage, to create advocacy, to challenge people's ideals of the status quo, to change things. That's just half of the job. Then you have to take policy into practice."
That's what Sterling Farms is all about. With one store, it's sixty jobs. With one store, you create an economic engine, you have a social impact by reaching that kid who's on the fence by saying, "I'm going to give him a job." He won't have to look over his shoulder to see who might be gunning for him. We could give an option, give him a choice, to go down another road, which is really what the underground economy is all about. If I have no choice, I'm going to go sling drugs on the corner, and take my chances with criminality. I tell my employees all the time: "I want you to get the skill sets. I see you as business partners." And so it has multiple levels of impact, and it's classic American business.
Wendell Pierce in Treme.
When I think of a grocery store, there's kind of a Main Street image that comes to mind. It's kind of old-fashioned in this era of Internet commerce. A store is really an eco-system, it takes so many people to make a store run. It's almost like putting on a play every day.
Definitely. There's a lot of players. A lot of stage management and production and staging and then you open the doors.
Do you see this venture as social entrepreneurship? It seems like the very definition of that term.
That's where we have to be careful. That's the slippery slope I'm talking about. It's not a small-scale. I'm leveraged out in a multi-million dollar investment. So this is not like, "Hey, man, you know, let's get a couple of bushels of fruit and vegetables and sell them on the side of the road." No. This is a major investment. And we have to be careful that this definition of "social entrepreneurship" doesn't become some sort of watered-down definition of what capitalism and entrepreneurship should always be about. The whole idea of America when it comes to social, cultural and economics was to say, "Let's give people an opportunity. Let's educate as many people as possible. More ideas means growth, means benefit to all. The best ideas will rise to the top. We'll be more successful." That's true capitalism.
But what has happened is there are those who are not actually practicing capitalism, but they get the moniker because of their large volume of money. They act as if there's a finite amount of wealth, a fininte amount of opportunity, and so they behave in a way that, "Only my kids will access to great education. Only a few get access to competition. We will have this pie, and I get as much of this wealth as possible, and I'm going to make sure that this economic impact does not go out of our circles." And that is not true capitalism. That's materialism.
We've always had this duality of America. We espouse these great virtues and then behave in the most detrimental and negative ways. Freedom and liberty for all, as we have slavery and go out West and destroy whole cultures that have been there prior to our arrival. So we've always had this duality in our moral progress forward, and we work to get to a point where we get closer to what the value system is.
That is a long way to get back to what social entrepreneurship is. Entrepreneurship is what we consider to be social entrepreneurship: To do well and do good. To have an impact that is great for you and at the same time would have a benefit to the community as a whole. And there is a reward to the risk-taker, who builds the business, but there's also a benefit to the other people involved, a mutual benefit. When that definition of "social entrepreneurship" gets added to it, the first thing people say is, "What's the social impact?" When Apple does something new, the questions are: What are sales? What's the market? Do you think this will break out into Europe and into Asian markets?" The talk is in economic terms.
It's almost as if it gets treated like a darling project...
Like a little project. People say, "Oh, Mr. Pierce, it's so nice. You started a little pantry." I've gotten inquiries from so many groups, great groups, who say things like, "We're taking food and taking containers and turning them into small grocery outlets in underserved communities. Would you like to come on to our cause?" And I say, "No, because what I'm trying to do is bring 25,000 square foot-grocery stores into those communities."
Wendell Pierce will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 11, at the, Tivoli Student Union on the Auraria Campus, 900 Auraria Parkway. His talk is free; visit http://www.camarts.org/#events/details/123 for more information.
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