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NEW ORLEANS -- There’s a new convenience store concept in The Big Easy thanks to actor and New Orleans native Wendell Pierce and his business partners who are focused on reversing some of the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, which can still be felt in the low-income New Orleans (NOLA) neighborhoods where Pierce grew up.
Sterling Fresh Foods LLC is parent company to Sterling Xpress convenience stores and Sterling Farms full-service supermarkets. Both of these new ventures were created with the goal of placing stores with fresh produce, meats and seafood in urban “food deserts” — neighborhoods where residents must travel more than a mile to a store selling fresh food.
For Pierce, best known for his roles in television series “The Wire” and "Treme," it’s a process that has just begun. “It’s about sustenance: sustenance of families and sustenance of the community itself,” he said. “Economic development is the social-justice movement of the 21st century — that’s my mantra. The most important thing to me is creating a relationship with the community; creating an economic engine as an opportunity for them just to have access to decent food.”
CSNews Online recently caught up with Dave Cody, general manager at Sterling Xpress, to uncover some exclusive details about NOLA’s new express stop.
The first Sterling Xpress store opened in spring 2013 near the Lower Garden District and St. Thomas neighborhoods of New Orleans, Cody explained. The store sits on a major street, so it gets lots of traffic. It measures about 3,000 square feet and holds 3,000 SKUs.
In the future, all Sterling Xpress stores will be based on this model, but in the meantime, the company rebranded two "legacy" stores that are considerably smaller, he said.
The inaugural Sterling Xpress store stands alone in an area without many other consumer services. Although the location was risky, the store is already reaping the rewards. “So far, it has served us well -- well beyond our initial expectations,” Cody reported.
The building was designed “with the needs of a modern c-store in mind; in particular, the flexibility to modify our product offerings in line with changes in the surrounding neighborhood,” he said, noting that the merchandising at Sterling Xpress is a continual evolution. “We are still experimenting with the right combination of products. We add and subtract from our product line every month.”
The "fresh" in Sterling Fresh Foods is carried over to Sterling Xpress. The first location began as a convenience store with the addition of hot lunches and a modest selection of fresh fruit.
“What is unique to Xpress [in the c-store channel] is the path to a greater proportion of fresh inventory," Cody maintained. "We do believe that we are uniquely positioned to supply the highest standards of nutrition, especially if and when consumer preferences change.”
Beyond the three Xpress stores currently operating, the company owns other convenience stores in NOLA, but is currently leasing them out to third parties. "I think we own four other gas stations/c-stores and we are evaluating what to do with those properties,” he said.
The parent company does have expansion plans and is looking at other food deserts beyond NOLA. Such areas exist in many cities and urban areas across the United States, according to Cody. “The challenge for Sterling Fresh Foods, and for any other retailer, is to play the real estate game wisely. Some locations are appropriate for a full-service supermarket, [while] other locations might fit better with a smaller footprint and smaller inventory like Xpress.”