Gem City Market’s first year filled with growth, challenges from pandemic

Gem City Market opened its doors a year ago today, after years of work, seeking to bring fresh food and new investment to the Salem Avenue corridor.

The community-owned, full-service grocery store located at 324 Salem Ave., was created to bring relief to the food deserts in west and northwest Dayton. Along the way it’s also learned “to walk deeper in the community,” according to Amaha Sellassie, president of the Gem City Market board.

“We’ve learned from the community of what is the market that we want to have, and we’ve made those adjustments,” Sellassie said. “It feels like we’re really moving in sync now, which I think is important for not only meeting a need of food insecurity, but also helping the community shift from being recipients to co-creators of the community that they want to see.”

Lela Klein, a Gem City Market board member and co-executive director of Co-op Dayton, characterized the market’s first year as “an incredible mix of big wins and tough moments.”

“Like most in retail, the pandemic impacted our ability to bring people into the store, get products on the shelf and keep prices low, but our dedicated staff has been creative and scrappy in making sure we serve our customers,” Klein told the Dayton Daily News.

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The market, for example, found it challenging to consistently receive enough high quality shelf-ready fresh meat from our wholesalers due to meat industry supply chain interruptions, she said. Early on, that led to too many empty shelves in the meat department. Gem City was able to turn that around by developing its own meat-cutting program, led by butcher Adrien Harris.

“He and his team are able to keep the shelves full and ensure we’re giving out customers the specific kinds of cuts they want, rather than have to wait and see what the wholesaler sends us,” Klein said.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Gem City Market also supports dozens of workshops and classes with partners like Dayton Cooks, Expressions of Life and Kettering Health Dayton, including classes on the art of cooking for one, healthy comfort food, cooking for renal health, cooking for mom and baby, and cooking on a SNAP budget, she said.

Hundreds of people have come to those classes or have participated in Gem City Market events, Klein said.

“We try to ensure everything we do at the market is targeted to our neighborhood’s specific needs and desires,” she said. “For example, maternal health is such a critical issue for our community, so last week we launched WIC at the Market.”

That program will see WIC staff at the market from 1 to 4 p.m. every Thursday to help participants load their cards, sign up for benefits and navigate the sometimes complicated process of shopping with WIC. Gem City also held a “Mamas at the Market” program where 12 partner organizations provided expecting mothers with a host of services including doulas, lactation consultants and more.

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The store sees an average of 400 customers a day, Klein said.

“Anyone can shop at the market, so we haven’t tracked how many of them are members,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of people who come every week or multiple times a week, and then there are still often people who tell us it’s their first time.”

Sellassie said that early on, one of Gem City Market’s slogans was “We’re more than a market, we’re a movement.”

“We wanted to see how we could use food and food insecurity as a way to catalyze community, bring community together,” he said. “The market is like a piece in the larger transformation in the community.”

That vision expanded in the process of opening and running the market, Sellassie said.

That includes changing inventory and products over time.

“We always knew the first year would be a time of figuring out who our customers are and our product mix, and as a co-op we are positioned to really respond to our members’ needs, so we’ve brought a lot of new products in as a response to feedback we collected in the fall and winter,” Klein said. “We have a new salad bar, new bakery and bigger cheese selection, as well as great bulk deals and our brand new Essentials Wall, which contains our ‘always low prices’ essential items to meet any budget, right at the front of the store.”

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Gem City Market also recently tripled its meat and deli offerings, more than doubled produce offerings and completed a “major reset” where it changed prices on more than 7,500 items to better serve its customers, she said.

“We also instituted 72-hour sales every weekend to continue to give our community access to fresh and healthy food,” Klein said. “All of these changes came directly as a response to customer feedback, and people have been responding really well.”

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Rick Carne a senior adviser for Hall Hunger Initiative, a nonprofit group dedicated to eliminating hunger in the Dayton community, said there numerous community projects and programs in which the Hall Hunger Initiative staff and its founder, former U.S. Congressman and Ambassador Tony Hall, have been involved, but Gem City Market is “probably the biggest task that we’ve taken on in terms of local projects.”

“This really stands out as one that the entire community came together and everybody played a role in it,” Carne said, noting that Hall served as capital campaign chair. “The most significant aspect that really has made this project stand out is the enormity of it. About $5 million was raised, and that was not an easy task, but the community, and I mean a broad spectrum of the community supported it, saw the need.”

The business side of things is going well for Gem City Market, Klein said. It has surpassed $2 million in sales, she said.

Membership, too, is on the rise. Gem City had 4,000 members just before it opened. It now has more than 5,000, the majority of which/whom live in the market’s trade area.

Klein said the market is on the road to financial feasibility, but is still working to grow its sales to a more sustainable level. It has seen nearly 40% sales growth since January, and anticipates more growth this summer in cookout months.

“We have accomplished so much over the past two or three months, driven by our motivated management, staff and expanded product and services, but our greatest challenge continues to be slower sales than we expected during the pandemic and higher than anticipated cost of goods,” she said. “We’re embarking on new programs and initiatives to raise operating capital to get us back on track.”

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Sellassie said the next big challenge for the market is to bring down prices as low as possible, while increasing selection and building out more programming

The market hopes to hire by June 1 a community manager to oversee the community kitchen, the health clinic and the community room, to help drive Gem City’s health and wellness committee and to serve as the market’s relationship-building representative in the community.

Sellasie said he’s excited to see what else the market can do as he and its board believe change is possible.

“So now it’s like ‘How do we continue to utilize the market as a kind of hub toward reimagining Dayton and reimagining our region?’” he said. “How do we use building a local economy as a way towards meeting these larger visions that people have for where they want to work, live and play?”

Besides a 1st Year Anniversary Block Party & Sale from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Saturday, Gem City Market also will offer a 72-hour anniversary sale Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Klein said it is not too late for people to become a Gem City Market member.

“While everyone can shop at GCM, membership is the best way to keep our market strong and sustainable, and gives the community a vote in major decisions,” she said.

Carne said Gem City Market’s continued success is “a marathon and not a sprint.”

“Projects like this take a lot of patience and we’ve got to stick to it so this will be a valuable asset to the community for generations to come,” he said.


IF YOU GO

WHAT: Gem City Market’s 1st Year Anniversary Block Party & Sale

WHERE: Gem City Market, 324 Salem Ave., Dayton

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 14. Parking entrance on Superior Avenue. RTA Routes 08 14.

DETAILS: Features food, music, games and family friendly activities including lawn games, a live animal demonstrations and a bounce house. A disc jockey will spin tunes from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Face painting takes place from noon to 2 p.m. Luv Locz Experiment performs reggae-infused soul music at 3 p.m.

FAST FACTS ABOUT GEM CITY MARKET

  • The idea for a cooperative grocery store began in 2015 with a series of community meetings.
  • The market now has more than 5,000 members, more than half of whom live in the trade area.
  • The market has approximately 8,000 square feet of retail space.
  • About 19,000 residents live within a mile-and-a-half of Gem City Market
  • The market has a community space that people rent out for community events and educational activities, classes and other uses, like yoga.
  • The market also has a roughly 1,000-square-foot community kitchen that hosts cooking and food preparation classes.

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