Gem City Market: Northwest Dayton food co-op’s outlook rising after rough Year 1

Store in former food desert is preparing for major overhaul of its product selection; sales are rising, aiming for sustainability

After a tough first year in operation, the Gem City Market is turning things around, now expecting to break even in its fourth year and hoping to become profitable not much further down the road.

The market, located at 324 Salem Avenue in northwest Dayton, has significantly increased its sales, and the store is on the verge of a major overhaul of its product selection, which supporters believe will give a nice boost to spending at the cash register.



The market’s annual member meeting takes place Sunday, and the open house will give the food cooperative a chance to highlight some of the positive trends that it has seen.

“The picture is definitely a lot better than it was a year ago,” said Lela Klein, secretary of the Gem City Market board and co-executive director of Co-op Dayton, the store’s nonprofit developer. “We still have a ways to go before we’re fully sustainable, but the light is at the end of the tunnel; we see the path.”

Gem City Market is a community-led food co-op that was developed to bring a full-service grocery store to a section of Dayton that was a notorious food desert.

Even though the Gem City Market did not expect to be profitable right away when it opened in May 2021, the store lost more money than it anticipated in its first year of operation.

Sales and foot traffic were hurt by the COVID pandemic, which altered consumers’ shopping behaviors, as many people limited trips outside of the home and did more of their spending online.



The major road construction on Salem Avenue also didn’t help, making access to the store somewhat difficult and confusing.

But the market has seen a 31% increase in sales this year, between January and September. In January of 2022, the market’s lowest week of sales was about $37,000, which is a level that makes it hard to sustain staff and offer fresh produce and foods, Klein said.

But over this summer, the market’s weekly sales peaked at about $76,000. In order for the store to be sustainable, it needs to reach about $80,000 in weekly sales, Klein said.

“We’re really close — we can taste it — and this is completely attributable to the staff,” she said.

The market is still dealing with inflation and the kinds of challenges that are common for new businesses and grocery store operations.

Before the market opened, staff projected it would break even in its third year. Klein said that now looks likely to happen in year four.

The store usually welcomes about 500 to 600 customers every day.

The Gem City Market is working toward a big “store reset,” expected in October, that should result in a near doubling of its product selection, supporters said.

The market has a new wholesaler that is offering better pricing, especially on organics, and those savings can be passed onto customers, Klein said.



A better selection of products and fuller shelves, combined with a more favorable mix of pricing, hopefully will help the market surpass its sales goal, Klein said. The store has room to grow and offer more items, supporters said.

The Gem City Market had about $3 million in sales last year, according to Klein. In comparison, a long-established food co-op in Minnesota that is basically the same size had about $17 million in sales in 2022.

The Gem City Market now has about 5,375 members, who own the store and who get to vote to decide its leadership and policies.

Member-owners also will share 30% of the store’s profits, if and when the food co-op starts making money.

Supporters have long said the Gem City Market isn’t just a store — it’s a “movement.”

The 15,000-square-foot facility has about 8,000 square feet of retail space, plus a community kitchen with six cooking stations and stoves and another community space.

The market has a café that will soon turn into a juice bar called Jus Juic’n that also will sell coffee products, said Morgan Hood, community health and connection manager for the market.

The market’s community spaces have been widely used and have hosted many meetings, like a monthly nutrition class and other educational events about healthy living, Hood said.



The community room gives visitors a place to eat and hang out, and often students stop by to do their homework, she said. The market offers free books and fruit to kids.

The market has hosted neighborhood association meetings, voter-registration drives and cycling meet-ups.

The market, importantly, is a catalyst for creating more economically just opportunities for the community, Hood said.

The market has 31 employees, and about three-fourths of the staff live within a couple of miles of the business.

Lisa Henry, 52, has worked at the Gem City Market for about six months, but she has been a loyal customer since the first day the store opened.

Henry has lived in the neighborhood since she was about 15 years old, and her home is a few blocks away.

She said she used to shop at Dollar General, located just up the street, for her grocery needs even though it only sells canned and boxed goods and a limited supply of frozen foods.

She said the Gem City Market was a “godsend” to the community.

“It’s such a good vibe and such good energy in the store that I had to work here and I wanted to be a part of it,” she said. “It’s so wonderful here — we care, we’ll help you if you’re a little short.”

Henry said the neighborhood now finally has access to fresh meats, fruits and vegetables. The market also is “lighting a fuse” and is sure to be an economic spark for the area, she said.

The Gem City Market’s annual meeting will be an open house from noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Financial information from the report will be shared through large posters, and market staff and supporters will collect feedback from members and visitors.

The open house will feature tastings, and the store’s popular Soul Food Sunday event will offer discounts of 25% to members who participate in the meeting.

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