Madison’s first municipally-owned grocery store

Madison’s first municipally-owned grocery store

When people think about hunger, they have a picture in their mind of opening cupboards and seeing them bare, said Melissa Bublitz, a professor of consumer studies and food access in UW–Madison’s School of Human Ecology.

But the problem of hunger is really a progressive experience that starts with families wondering and worrying, “Where am I going to find the money in my budget to feed my family?”

“That sort of starts to lead to them making trade-offs,” Bublitz said.

In Madison’s South Park Street corridor, an area of the city with a majority low-income population, this issue rings true. Even a quick tour of the area features many storefronts barren, empty or abandoned next to the occasional coffee shop, convenience store or gas station. 

There’s one Pick N’ Save, the only full-service grocery store in the area, but the store is set to close in a matter of months due to a new development taking over the site. 

Coming soon to Madison’s South Park Street is a new full-service grocery store. Maurer’s Urban Market will be watering a food desert on Madison’s South Side with one unusual twist: The store will be owned by the City of Madison. 

Consolidation by large grocery chains has made it difficult for stores to succeed in some areas. To avoid this neighborhood becoming a food desert, the city announced a plan to open a grocery store just across the street as a part of a development project that also will include new affordable housing. The concept of a municipally-owned grocery store is a fairly new one, with only a handful of examples from across the country to pull from.

As the new incoming tenants of 815 Cedar St., Maurer’s Urban Market is a part of an effort by the City of Madison to promote food access by making sure that everyone in the city has access to fresh, locally sourced food. By making this grocery store municipally-owned, it potentially allows for a stable source of groceries for the residents of South Madison. 

While the building will be owned by the City of Madison, it will be leased to Kristie Maurer — owner of Maurer’s Urban Market — to operate her store, now slated to open in 2024, in a neighborhood where food access is slim.

“The city stepped in and said that we would purchase the grocery store condo for $4.6 million as part of the process to allow the development team to secure their financing and begin construction of the overall project, which is 150 units of affordable housing, parking structure and the grocery store,” said Daniel Rolfs, the real estate development manager on the project. The store was originally scheduled to open before the end of 2023, but working through some design challenges has delayed its opening, Mauer recently told Isthmus.

While this project is best known for its development of a municipal grocery store, it’s also important to note that the building that was bought by the city for this project will also include an affordable housing development and a parking structure. 

“The city will own the grocery/condo, and we will work with Maurer to make sure that they are successful and can operate the grocery store long term,” Rolfs said.

Rolfs notes that Maurer’s is hoping to occupy 815 Cedar St. long term, and is key to this project succeeding. Without a full-service grocery store, this immediate neighborhood will remain a food desert. The next closest grocery store is Madison Fresh Market, which is a 15-minute bus ride away, or a 40-minute walk. 

According to Bublitz, this doesn’t constitute an acceptable distance from the South Park Street neighborhood.

“When we think about urban food deserts, we think about having to travel far to get access to fresh, affordable grocery places. Some of our convenience stores are starting to offer some fresh foods at reasonable prices, but the selections are quite limited,” Bublitz said. “Having access to groceries in your neighborhood, in your community, that’s something that we have seen over the last 50 years is really a lot of consolidation in the grocery industry.”

This change from locally owned grocery stores to chain grocery stores is reflected in recent findings by the Economic Research Service, which found that the top 20 grocery store chains accounted for 65.1% of the total national grocery sales in America in 2019. 

Because these chain stores are taking up so much of the demand, they are putting smaller grocery stores out of business and driving out a lot of neighborhood grocery stores. Bigger grocery stores have larger budgets, and are able to have more food options, according to Bublitz.

This local example of a food desert is no different than others, with the area of South Park Street that surrounds 815 Cedar St. housing a majority low-income population. County Executive Joe Parisi said the mask of Madison’s success often shields the great disparities between the upper classes and lower classes in the city. 

“Dane County is a very prosperous community, in the fastest growing community in the state, and the people who are doing well here are doing really well, and the people who are not are really not,” Parisi said. “Those dynamics kind of play off each other to make it even worse for people and even harder to climb that ladder.” 

According to Bublitz, it’s important to think about the commute and the difficulty of carrying groceries home in an urban area when considering what is an acceptable distance from a grocery store. 

The considered acceptable distance from any given residence in an urban area to a grocery store is one mile. She notes that people will often take their kids grocery shopping with them, often having to walk or ride the bus. In an urban area, a car should not be needed to go grocery shopping, according to Bublitz. 

Full-service grocery stores are different from a convenience store, such as a Kwik Trip. Full-service grocery stores have plenty of options for fresh and locally sourced food, whereas convenience stores often will have some fresh food, but stock more cheap, shelf-stable items. 

“Sometimes buying less healthy food can be a way to stretch your food budget,” Bublitz said. “If I buy a huge bag of elbow macaroni, I can get that pretty cheap. But what often happens is that you start skimping on some of those healthier things like the need for lean, low-fat dairy, fresh fruits and vegetables and things like that.”

In an area that is bordering on being a food desert, such as South Park Street, this option becomes all too common when regular shopping at convenience stores is the only way to procure food close to home. 

Many of the places that have attempted the municipally-owned grocery store model are small towns, which have had varying results. The small town of Erie, Kansas, had a municipally-owned grocery store that was initially successful, according to the Wall Street Journal. However, after the store had been open for a while, it began losing business to an out-of-town Walmart and a Dollar General across the street, making it difficult for the town’s municipally-owned store to stay open. 

On the other hand, St. Paul, Kansas, a few towns over from Erie, is seeing great success with its municipally-owned grocery store, which opened for similar reasons. 

And according to recent reports, Chicago is currently working on opening its first municipal grocery store, which would make it the largest city to have done so. With Chicago being one of the most segregated cities in the country, and a city pocked with food deserts, the success rate there will truly set a tone for their potential for effectiveness nationwide. 

The issue lies in big grocery stores sucking up a lot of the demand for groceries and putting many small grocery stores out of business, according to Bublitz. Cities mitigate this by putting in convenience stores that don’t have all the options that families need to succeed. Smaller locally-owned grocery stores cannot necessarily afford to keep going with lower rates of business. This is where municipally-owned grocery stores have come into play for many cities.

“I think the biggest thing that we’ve learned,” said Rolfs, “is that when the city is working to address a market failure,” whether it’s “related to food access, or affordable housing, or access to anything else, at the end of the day, it’s all about money.” 

The building where Maurer’s Market will soon be located, on the corner of Cedar and South Park Street. Picture by Sydney Vasquez.


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