Nonprofit grocery store set to open in Dorchester
Daily Table, from Trader Joe’s ex-president, aims to serve up affordable, healthy foods
Daily Table on Washington Street in Dorchester looks like a boutique supermarket. Carrots and squash fill wood crates, precooked bean soups and pastas line refrigerator cases, and a 7-foot window displays a bustling kitchen where chefs chop vegetables and cook chili.
But unlike Whole Foods and Star Market, the new business isn’t built on profit margins or sales growth.
Daily Table bills itself as the first not-for-profit grocery store in the country with a mission to provide nutritious and affordable meals for low-income families. The store is expected to open soon, pending final permits.
The current planned prices — $1.19 for a dozen eggs, $1.99 for a block of cheddar cheese and 55 cents for a can of tuna — are considerably lower than the cheapest alternatives at traditional supermarkets. The store can offer lower prices because it sources surplus foods or goods nearing their “sell-by” dates from farmers, supermarkets, manufacturers, and food distributors, who would rather donate or sell their products at steep discounts than toss them in the trash.
“Our job at Daily Table is to provide healthy meals that are no more expensive than what people are already buying,” said Doug Rauch, the founder of Daily Table and former president of Trader Joe’s. “We’re trying to reach a segment of the population that is hard to reach. It’s the working poor who are out buying food, but who can’t afford the food they should be eating.”
The program attempts to solve one food challenge in America with another.
One in six Americans, or roughly 49 million people, are “food insecure,” defined as lacking reliable access to healthy and affordable food, according to Feeding America, a national nonprofit network of food banks. Poor access to nutritious food can lead to a number of health issues, from obesity to diabetes, as consumers opt for cheaper options, such as fast-food or other overly processed meals.
At the same time, the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that 40 percent of the food produced in the United States is wasted every year.
So far, Rauch has built relationships with suppliers to divert garbage-bound products to his shelves. He’s careful to point out that it doesn’t mean the food is “bad,” expired, or unsafe to eat.
A vendor at Haymarket, for example, donated a couple hundred pounds of summer squash he intended to throw away after the food didn’t sell. Daily Table expects to sell it for 59 cents a pound. Rauch said he has also purchased vegetables that grocery stores reject because of blemishes or other cosmetic problems that don’t affect the quality of the product.
Daily Table scored a deal on raisin bran cereal flakes because the boxes had a sell-by date only a few months away. He intends to sell the cereal for 79 cents a box.
Rauch’s plan to open the store emerged during his studies as a fellow at Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative from 2010 to 2012. The model is unusual for a nonprofit because it runs like a business that can sustain itself without financial donations.
Daily Table purchases about half of its products at reduced prices. The store is an approved organization of the Greater Boston Food Bank, and some of the products are acquired through the agency.
The food at Daily Table is sold at cost or with a modest mark-up, although the products and prices fluctuate daily. Rauch said sales cover the costs of labor, rent, food, trucking, storing, and other operating expenses.
“Our goal, if we’re lucky, is to break even,” Rauch said. “That would be fantastic.”
The store is membership-based, and customers must provide their ZIP codes to shop. Rauch said he intends for the store to predominantly serve people in the surrounding neighborhood and may have to exclude shoppers from other communities later.
Rauch said he chose to charge for food in part because some people aren’t comfortable with visiting food banks.
The store initially made headlines in 2013, when Rauch first unveiled his plan to sell products that were past their display-code dates. Some criticized the idea, which they saw as an attempt to sell “old” food to impoverished communities.
But so far, Rauch said, Daily Table has not needed to source products past their sell-by dates, though he remains open to the idea as long as the food is safe and healthy to consume.
A longtime veteran of the food industry, Rauch argues that the codes are a tool for retailers and manufacturers to track their products and rotate stock, not an indicator of health safety limits.
While preparing to open Daily Table, Rauch said he learned that there was high neighborhood interest in easy and convenient food with low prices. Now much of the store is dedicated to grab-and-go meals — macaroni and cheese, pastas, soups, and other dishes — that customers can take home and heat up quickly in the microwave or the oven. Entrees cost between $1.79 and $4.99, while side dishes are priced between 50 cents and $1. Soups range from $1.49 to $3.99.
“As it turns out, if you’re struggling in the economy, you’re struggling not only with money but with time,” Rauch said.
Rauch brought in a team of nutritionists and specialists from local hospitals and universities to develop a set of guidelines for levels of sodium, fibers, sugars, and other elements in prepared meals. The store’s executive chef, Ismail Samad, has worked in a number of restaurants, including celebrated chef Charlie Palmer’s Michelin-starred eatery, Aureole.
Daily Table is opening at a time when more companies and organizations are seeking ways to divert extra food, said Sasha Purpura, executive director of Food For Free, a nonprofit based in Cambridge that aims to bridge the gap between food waste and hunger.
A state regulation that took effect in October prohibits businesses and institutions from disposing of more than one ton of food waste per week. Purpura said her organization, which picks up surplus food and delivers it to banks and other agencies, has received an influx of calls from groups that want to unload food.
Meanwhile, Rauch is raising funds to open two more stores in the Boston area.
“What Doug is doing is fantastic,” Purpura said. “The reality is that the most expensive foods are the healthiest, and one of the primary foods that is thrown away is produce, because it’s perishable. It’s a way to address food security by taking a resource that would otherwise go to waste.”