Oasis on Wheels
Mobile grocery store Rollin’ Grocer brings fresh food to KC’s food deserts.
editor's note: as of aug. 1, rollin' grocer has officially ceased operations. the store plans to return after a year of restructuring its business.
Kansas City is a city that thrives. From a bustling arts scene and restaurants featuring James Beard Award-winning chefs, to mixed-use developments on the rise and an enthralling sports culture, we seem to have it all. But for those who live in the urban core, Kansas City falls short in one basic area — access to affordable, fresh food.
According to 2010 Census data, approximately 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts, neighborhoods that are at least a mile, if not more, away from a grocery store. Nearly half of those neighborhoods are also low-income. As more grocery stores close in Kansas City, more residents resort to bus travel, walking or sometimes driving more than a mile to buy groceries.
Enter Rollin’ Grocer, Kansas City’s first mobile grocery store.
Since hitting the road in 2016, the full-service mobile market has been an oasis to those living in food-insecure areas, bringing fresh, affordable food to more than 30 stops throughout the metro, venturing from St. Joseph, Mo., to Bonner Springs, Kan.
The idea was conceived after Jessica Royer, Rollin’ Grocer’s CFO and co-owner, had a friend ask her to take her to the “white” grocery store. Royer was horrified at the disparity between stores (such as fresh, quality products at affordable prices versus expiring, poor-quality, overpriced items) and the reality that affects many residents. That’s when Royer, along with friends and co-owners Natasha Ria El-Scari, Jay Kelson and Theodore Priest Hughes, decided to do something about it.
Rollin’ Grocer didn’t just want to serve the community; they wanted to be part of it. So the co-founders did research and visited staples in the community, such as churches, community centers, veteran and senior living homes and barbershops, looking for input on what the community wanted and needed.
“Before our truck even had its shelving or anything in it, it was just a trailer with white walls and flooring,” says El-Scari, the store’s CEO. “We put up butcher paper, and we drove the truck to different places and said, ‘this is a grocery store. What would you like to see in a grocery store if you were to walk up?’”
Although it’s mobile, the 24-foot customized trailer operates like just a brick-and-mortar store, carrying small batches of essentials like fresh produce, meat, herbs and spices, along with snack foods, pet food, and non-food items like baby wipes and toothpaste. There are more than 760 items aboard the store, and if customers think of an item the store doesn’t carry, they can request it — except alcohol and tobacco. El-Scari says the store doesn’t carry them because the community is not in the desert for those things.
“One of the things that we decided as a business was that we were not here to dictate to people what they should and shouldn't eat,” she says. “Rather, we are here to provide them with options. So if you want your pig’s feet and Vienna sausages, sure. But we’re also going to make sure we have 22 different fruits and vegetables.”
Local butcher and manufacturer L&C Meat, one of Rollin’ Grocer’s many partners, packages smaller portions of USDA-certified meat for those who live alone. The meat is also frozen so that customers who travel longer distances can make it from the store to their refrigerator without the meat thawing.
The ultimate goal is to make sure customers can buy one week’s worth of food for their family in one visit. El-Scari believes the store has long surpassed that.
In its next phase, Rollin’ Grocer is looking to expand its community impact. Earlier this year, the mobile market won the UPS Store’s Small Biz Salute pitch-off competition, going up against other local businesses and winning $5,000. The team chose to give 10 percent of their winnings directly back to its customers through gift certificates, raffles and giveaways. The next step is to jumpstart its delivery service, starting with seniors who are shut-in.
“We’re trying to figure out the best way because our seniors, they want to look at every price, they want to know everything.” She says. “Grocery store prices change every six days, so we’re always trying to look at how we can stay as green as possible. We may offer 250 items for delivery. We’re in the process of collecting that info and seeing what it does.”
For more information, including a monthly schedule of stops, visit rollingrocer.com.