ST. LOUIS — Link Market is thinking outside the box, literally, about what a grocery store should be.
The nonprofit known for turning shipping containers into grocery store kiosks is looking to expand, and announced plans Thursday to open its first brick-and-mortar grocery store, at 1235 Blumeyer Street, through a new partnership with the St. Louis Housing Authority.
“We want to offer people a Whole Foods aesthetic on an Aldi price,” said founder Jeremy Goss.
Link Market currently operates two shipping container kiosks, at the North Hanley and the Wellston MetroLink stations. Opening a brick-and-mortar store will be a new experience for Goss — and a more familiar one for customers.
The flagship store plans on getting some of its produce from the nearby Fresh Starts Community Garden, which means something harvested in the morning could appear on store shelves that afternoon.
The partnership essentially gives Link Market space in Housing Authority buildings. Goss and his team will be working over the next several months to transform a former coffee shop at the corner of the Housing Authority’s headquarters at 3520 Page Boulevard ahead of the grocery store’s tentative grand opening in February.
The space is tiny, roughly 1,000 square feet, but Goss said it’s “more than enough” for them.
By comparison, the average Aldi is 16,000 square feet and the average Schnucks is 60,000 square feet.
Goss was awarded a $20,000 grant from the American Heart Association’s Business Accelerator this month. The money means they will be able to give the space a facelift in the form of better equipment, shelving, tables and chairs.
The store will sell local fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy as well as snacks, frozen foods and pre-prepared meals, “Blue Apron” style. There will also be a cafe and a commercial kitchen along with plans for cooking demonstrations and lessons in healthy eating, Goss said.
Nearly two dozen grocery stores have closed in the St. Louis area over the past two years. Earlier this month, Schnucks announced that it would close stores in Edwardsville, St. Peters and O’Fallon, Missouri, citing poor sales.
“These neighborhoods need more resources, not fewer,” Goss said.
The store is a four-minute walk from the existing Save-A-Lot, the only grocer in the Covenant Blu-Grand Center neighborhood. The closest full-service stores are the Aldi in Jeff-Vander-Lou, about 1½ miles away, and the Schnucks in the Central West End, about 2 miles away.
Alana Green, executive director of the St. Louis Housing Authority, said providing a low-cost healthy food option for residents was a natural fit for their mission, which made teaming up with Link Market an easy decision.
Since then, Goss and his team have met with residents in the nearby housing development at Renaissance Place and asked for their feedback on items the Link Market shipping containers now carry and their prices.
He said residents wanted a wider variety of options, better quality products, access to local produce, a well-groomed store, and — a main concern — competitive prices.
“They thought prices were a little high on our protein, namely our bacon, but they were glad to see some cultural staples like mustard, turnip and collard greens, but also green tomatoes,” said Goss, adding that residents were excited about the ability to request specific things from the community garden.
People also told Goss they felt tired of going into stores that looked “dirty” and ultimately didn’t inspire them to cook.
Goss said the Link Market plans on creating a community advisory council and has committed to hiring people directly from the neighborhood to work in the store.
When residents have a stake in the store, they’re more likely to invest in their community, said Ellen Barnidge, a professor in behavioral science and health education at St. Louis University.
“Residents want to be able to spend their money in their community,” Barnidge said.
The future of the Link Market shipping container stores is unclear. Bi-State Development, MetroLink’s parent organization, said it hasn’t decided if it would keep the markets at its train stops.
But Goss and Green have bigger plans.
If the brick-and-mortar store is successful, the Housing Authority’s long-term goal is to “take this model into the community” and expand into the housing developments themselves, said Green, which would make the partnership one of the first of its kind in the U.S.
A second store could open as early as the middle of 2020.