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Rethinking the traditional grocery store

All over Greater Boston, locals are launching neighborhood-level food outlets.

Alexis Cervasio, the founder of EBO & Co. Grocery at the Meridian Street location in East Boston. She recently opened a pop-up extension in South Boston.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

While grocery costs soar, entrepreneurs around Greater Boston are creating alternatives to the Star Markets and Roche Brothers of the world.

Business owners and residents have opened — or are in the process of opening — at least four boutique food shops and co-op grocery stores that cater to their neighborhoods this summer. They’re banking on the idea that customers will come from around the block to shop, or arrive looking for high-quality (and often locally sourced) products you can’t find at, say, Stop & Shop.

Among those entrepreneurs is Alexis Cervasio, the founder of East Boston’s EBO & Co. Grocery. The original location opened last fall selling everyday items — potato chips and produce — alongside more high-brow selections: oysters, caviar, and crab legs. Now, she’s expanded into a South Boston pop-up — open through the end of the year — at the intersection of C and Baxter Streets. Nestled near the water, the newly opened spot will focus on picnics and beachside snacking. It’s smaller than her store in Eastie and “curated more specifically,” Cervasio said.

“The type of place I think every neighborhood should have — not as big as a grocery store, not as boring as a bodega.”

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Tinned fish and snacks on display at the new Ebo & Co. location.Handout/Alexis Cervasio

The shelves are stocked with goodies for a charcuterie board, including cheeses, meats, jams, and honeys. There’s a wall of tin fish, which, if eaten on the picnic tables outside, comes on a paper plate with butter, sea salt, parsley, and lemon. Four kinds of caviar will be available at all times. And a lobster roll kit with a pound of meat, two buns, and a dime bag of spices runs for $75 — “a steal,” Cervasio said, while lobster prices skyrocket.

For folks looking to grab and go, the Southie location is also full of freezer dinners (like Roberta’s Pizza and Dumpling Daughter) and fresh produce “you want to eat in the hot weather,” like shishito peppers and ripe tomatoes, Cervasio said. Beachgoers will find chardonnay sunblock and totes for sale, and a crate of records is up for grabs in the back.

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In the North Shore, Rachel Miller launched a similar concept near Memorial Day. The Sin City Superette — a play on Lynn’s moniker as “the City of Sin” — sells the grocery store staples like dairy, diapers, and hygiene products in smaller quantities at 71 Exchange St.

Also the chef behind Nightshade Noodle Bar next door, Miller was inspired to open the shop after seeing the need during the pandemic. She lives just blocks away and knows there are no grocery stores within walking distance. Oftentimes, there is no reason to make the trek for a single cup of rice a family may need for dinner. So at the Superette, residents can buy just one chicken thigh, two potato rolls, or four leaves of collard greens. The shop also sells prepared lunch foods and “loosies,” a section for customers hunting for a single Advil, tampon, or condom, for instance.

Rachel Miller, the chef-owner of Nightshade Noodle Bar and founder of Sin City Superette.Alyssa Blumstein

“It’s about capturing the essence of meeting the immediate need for people, instead of having to anticipate every single thing you want,” Miller said.

With inflation still on the run nationwide, she hopes the Superette will help households of all incomes — from the spiffy high-rise apartment complexes recently built in Lynn to longtime residents with lower incomes. The store accepts government-issued EBT cards, also known as food stamps, and Miller prices items in an effort to keep them affordable.

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Plus, the venture helps her, too. By ordering in bulk for both the Superette and her 24-seat restaurant, Miller can cut costs. Selling a few gem lettuces at the Superette helps pay off the price of the case needed at Nightshade, she said. “And selling scallops at the store and also serving them up next door eliminates waste.”

In Maynard, on the other hand, residents are opting for an even more community-centric model. The Assabet Co-op Market — the only one of its kind in Metro West Boston — had its groundbreaking in late June and will open by year’s end. It’s the handiwork of over 2,000 member-donors from 40 communities, who spent a decade working on the idea and raising money.

General manager Sam McCormick said the market will soon fill 8,000 square feet at 86 Powder Mill Road, divided into four sections: standard retail, a deli kitchen, a coffee shop, and a backroom for employees and storage. Much of the inventory will be sourced from within a 100-mile radius; if it’s not, it will be harvested from sustainable sources. Some products will be bought from other co-ops.

A rendering of the Assabet Co-op Market, opening late this year.Assabet Co-op Market

In some ways, the store is a “risky startup,” McCormick said. “But we believe it’ll be successful on the principle that where people have gathered, you build. It will have an existing shopping base with the owners.”

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Each share in the co-op cost $200, and member-owners will be paid an annual dividend in profitable years. Hundreds of others also invested money into the market, including 300 people who devoted more than $2 million total.

The goal now is to nourish that community, while prioritizing the local food economy, particularly with Black and brown producers in mind, McCormick added. “Yes, we’re a business,” McCormick said. “But we can choose to eat our profits and put them into supporting people. We can do things differently.”

Assabet Co-op Market general manager Sam McCormick (left) at the store's groundbreaking ceremony in June.Assabet Co-op Market

The Dorchester Food Co-op is spearheading another grassroots initiative, this one at the corner of Bowdoin and Topliff Streets.

Board President Marcos Beleche said the market will open by 2023 beneath a new, 41-unit affordable housing complex, where nonprofit developer VietAID, has offered reduced rent. It’ll source food from nearby urban farmers, too, and include a café within the 6,000 square foot space. (“Somewhere you can run into folks you know,” Beleche said.) So far, over 1,350 member-owners have purchased $100 shares.

Beleche added that the market could be a boon for a community struggling with access to healthy food and widespread hunger as the pandemic endures.

“This is clearly a place that has experienced systemic racism and economic challenges in our city,” he said. “This is not a perfect answer, but it’s part of the solution.”


Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her @ditikohli_.