Walnut Hills tries new approach to keep its neighborhood grocery store afloat

One-by-one, Cincinnati’s urban neighborhoods are revitalizing themselves with new residents and businesses. Some of these neighborhoods, however, continue to struggle with sustaining or attracting urban grocery stores that can bring much-needed healthy food choices to their community. Walnut Hills is no different.

Walnut Hills is one of just seven, out of 52, neighborhoods in the City of Cincinnati that boast a full-scale grocery store. The Walnut Hills Kroger, located at 954 E. McMillan Street, has been in discussions with city leaders over recent years about whether it will continue operating that location. But with revitalization work sweeping through the Walnut Hills, neighborhood leaders think this serves as an opportunity.

“We understand that as a business they need to make money, and once we have done our part, and they are a profitable store, then we hope they will begin to make some of the improvements that the neighborhood would like to see,” said Kevin Wright, director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation (WHRF) and graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s Masters of Community Planning program.

Organizers say the first Buy 25 Tuesdays event generated $2,700 in new revenue and communicated over 100 food suggestions to store management. Walnut Hills Kroger photograph provided.

Wright says that after speaking with neighborhood residents and stakeholders he found that most had a negative perception of the store. He said that the perceptions are that store has a bad food selection, and that it is unsafe to visit. The goal, he says, is to solve both of those issues through a new bi-weekly event called Buy 25.

The first Buy 25 took place on June 26, and the second was scheduled to take place on July 10, but due to the power outage organizers have postponed the next event until July 24. Those who join the Buy 25 group are encouraged to spend $25 at the store at least the two times a month that the event takes place.

Wright says that through discussions with Kroger, a neighborhood committee found out that $10,000 in additional revenue per month can put the urban grocer into the black. That breaks down to approximately 200 new customers spending $50 a month at the Walnut Hills store.

Neighborhood leaders are hoping to create a social atmosphere outside of the Kroger on Buy 25 Tuesdays by providing music, food samples, coupons, and a chance to give feedback to store management.

“This is about improving the Kroger, but it’s also about coming together as a community for a common cause,” explained Wright. “Walnut Hills is on the verge of some major redevelopment and if our residents feel like they have an ownership in that, the overall redevelopment efforts will be more sustainable.”

According to the WHRF, the first Buy 25 event brought in an additional $2,700 in revenue for the Walnut Hills Kroger. Neighborhood leaders feel like the new event is off to a good start, but are aware of the potential risks should they not be able to meet the $10,000 target over the course of each month.

“Becoming a food desert would have a profound effect on our senior and low-income population,” Wright answered in response to the possibility of the store closing. “It would also have a negative effect on our redevelopment momentum as the Kroger sits almost directly in the center of the neighborhood and its business district.”

Wright says that he fears that while the neighborhood can support grocery store, that if the Kroger were to close it would take at least three to five years to attract a new urban grocer. And having a large vacant structure at the heart of the Walnut Hills neighborhood business district for several years would create additional hurdles to ongoing redevelopment efforts taking place there.

Neighborhood leaders have not yet been told, or warned, that the Kroger may shut down, but Wright emphasized that they are trying to support the store and give it every reason to stay in the community.

Buy 25 Tuesdays take place on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month from 4pm to 8pm. Those who come are encouraged to bring a shopping list so that they can inform store management of items they were not able to purchase there.

  • Jacob Mecklenborg

    This illustrates why it’s so dumb for neighborhoods in cities nationwide to be at the mercy of for-profit grocery stores. If they pull out the neighborhood declines further and the city loses whatever other investments it has made, along with a decline in property tax revenue. So yes I’m suggesting that city neighborhoods would be stabalized in part by regulating grocery stores like a utility.

    • zschmiez

      The grocery store developed around the neighborhood, not the other way around. No one is at mercy to these stores. How do you fault Kroger, who is running 85% (if not more) of their stores at a profit, for having doubts about sticking? Why stop at food? Should they also regulate gas stations, pizza, cell-phone, and tire stores? Those too provide jobs and stability to the neighborhood, do they not?

    • English Teacher

      Right–if the neighborhood is functioning well, then for-profit stores and/or co-ops will op up naturally. If really poor neighborhoods don’t have grocery stores, the problem is with the poverty and inequality, and we should address the root of the problem. In a fairer and more equal society you wouldn’t have food deserts.

    • The problem is that the financial models for most grocery stores favor suburban land uses. They calculate their customer base from a large driving area, and do not typically account for walkers or transit riders. As a result, grocery store chains have become increasingly more suburban in their built form over the years.

      It’s no longer acceptable to make a reasonable profit at a neighborhood grocery when you can make a much larger profit with fewer stores serving a larger area by cars. It’s all about shareholders, not customers. And unfortunately, the shareholders only see dollars and cents, and do not realize that the closing of grocery stores in our urban communities is creating much larger problems than just jobs and economic issues.

    • zschmiez

      Just to play devil’s advocate; why is does the responsibility rest on the shoulders of grocers? They, like any other business, are entrepreneurs. Why are other businesses allowed to pull out without some sort of governance? I realize folks need easily accessible food. But Krogers is really a service provider under a single label, where as Findlay is a location with multiple proprietors.

      I think one possible option, would be to break up operations into that of butchers, produce, sundries, etc. Allow those that can thrive to do so, and those whom do not can fail as business demands. Sort of the anti-walmart (one-stop shopping works for suburbanites, but it doesnt have to be the solution for urbanites).

  • Jacob Mecklenborg

    The City owns Findlay Market, of course, and so it is in a sense a publicly subsidized grocery store which competes in a small way with the OTR Kroger, although in this example the roles are reversed: most Findlay Market customers drive whereas most OTR Kroger customers walk.

  • charles ross

    That Kroger store is poorly designed for an urban locale. It created a suburban super block in an already decrepit storefront neighborhood. I suspect that the WH Kroger store’s insertion alongside Peebles corner made a bad situation worse.

    Maybe while the Corryville Kroger is being demolished, Kroger can show us their urban-savvy face, because there is going to be a large food desert during that period. Clifton IGA and Corryville kroger out of the picture will be horrendous for non-drivers around uptown. WH will be their only choice, and getting past the low life scenr at Peebles corner and the loiterers along the McMillan side of the Kroger store is a daunting journey for a person not hardened to slum life.

  • Banks are required to have a certain number of bank branches in low-income areas by federal banking law. Maybe supermarkets can be encouraged to have stores in certain areas in exchange for favorable tax treatment at a local or state level.

  • Zachary Schunn

    Kroger has never been a progressive company, but I am pleased with their changing attitude towards urban stores of late, and hope it continues.

    The problem, of course, is convincing companies like Kroger that investments leads to profits, not the other way around. Kroger is known for following trends, not leading them, and is just starting to take note of trends towards urban re-development.

    A new Corryville Kroger is pending (they would start construction today if they could), a downtown Kroger may finally get built, and even just dropping threats to close Walnut Hills and OTR stores is progress. Here’s hoping the population in these neighborhoods continues to grow enough that all 4 stores can co-exist, profitably.