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Fresh Corner Cafe

Detroit, MI 48201

Noam Kimelman

You are what you eat but you are also picky of what you eat and where. That's a hard truth Noam Kimelman discovered while growing his healthy-eating startup, Fresh Corner Cafe.

The 3-year-old company got its start with the idea of offering fruits and vegetables at corner stores in Detroit that typically stock shelves with processed junk food. The idea is to create a business around offering healthy eating options in inner-city party stores. In its first year, that business pivoted to offering salads and wraps in those stores. With the help of programs like the Detroit Micro Enterprise Fund and Green Garage in Detroit's Midtown neighborhood (where Fresh Corner Cafe calls home), the firm has grown to a staff of four employees who are working with 20 stores across Detroit.

But Kimelman is licking his chops at the idea of scaling his business model. He estimates there are more than 1,000 corner stores in the city of Detroit and even more in the suburbs. That number keeps climbing as you look across Michigan, the Midwest and the U.S.

"Every single person in Detroit seems to have a corner store a block or two away from them," Kimelman says. "So we're more excited about the ability to scale. If we can figure out a model that works with corner stores then it can be a very scalable model that can expand to all of Detroit and make sure healthy food is available to everybody. Whole Foods can have an impact on the people who can drive to it or who live next to it, but it won't have an impact on most Detroiters."

A big part of the challenge is changing perceptions about these corner stores. The stereotypical Detroit party store suffers from poor aesthetics. Think older buildings, dim lighting, disorganized shelves, lack of cleanliness, etc. These aren’t the places people walk in and expect to buy fresh, organic food. These are the places people expect to buy a bag of chips and a candy bar.

"When we first started we were a bit overly idealistic," Kimelman says. "We thought we could go into any store in any neighborhood, no matter what it looks like. We can tackle it. We can figure out a way to get healthy foods in there. What we're realizing now is there are certain conditions that will make a corner store more likely to succeed. If it's well-kept, if the store owner is engaged, if there is a community-relations aspect to the store."

Kimelman adds that "there are a lot of feelings of, 'I don't go to a gas station to buy food. I wasn't raised that way.' We’re certainly battling a lot of negative perceptions."

To counter that, Get Fresh Detroit started providing its own branded coolers. It put a minimum buy amount for delivery. It stopped allowing returns. It worked with shop owners to improve the store’s aesthetic and raise customer expectations so they know they can buy something more than old deli sandwich and junk food. It targeted stores that sell something beyond processed food.

"One of the more important things we’re finding is that people are coming in and expecting food," Kimelman says. "Some corner stores carry chips and pop, and that's it. The corner stores that carry the deli meats and the eggs and the sandwiches. If people are expecting to see some sort of on-the-go food then it is much easier to make that transition."

That pivot allowed Fresh Corner Cafe to turn its product into an overall asset for party stores. Some of them are turning Fresh Corner Cafe’s salads and wraps in a loss-leader-style item.

"Now we're seeing our product as an asset to that store and a way to bring customers into that store," Kimelman says. "The corner stores are so similar and so close to each other that any leg up they can get on their neighbor is a huge asset to them."

Fresh Corner Cafe just took on its first account in the suburbs. One of its largest customers who owns a handful of corner stores in Detroit recently bought one in Frasher. He insisted on having Fresh Corner Cafe’s products in his suburban store. Kimelman found it easier to sell his company's products there because the suburban store is cleaner, better lit and more welcoming.

"The mission (supplying healthy eating options to underserved communities) stills applies in the suburbs," Kimelman says. "A lot of diet related diseases have been found a correlation to the proximity of a healthy-food retailer."

He believes Fresh Corner Cafe is close to perfecting its business plan so it can scale.

"If you can figure out 10-20-30 you can probably figure out a few hundred or a few thousand," Kimelman says.

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