From left: Marckus Williams, co-owner of Indy Fresh Market; Joseph Welsh, consultant and lead; and Michael McFarland, co-owner of Indy Fresh Market
It may be described as a food desert, but one neighborhood in Indianapolis is anything but sparse in terms of people wanting to solve the problem. Indeed, the creation of Indy Fresh Market on the east side of this Midwestern city can be viewed as a model in meeting the needs of underserved communities by tapping into local, regional and national resources.
Progressive Grocer recently talked with one of the owners, Michael McFarland, and with Joseph Welsh of Joseph Welsh Consulting LLC of Las Vegas. They shared details about how the store came together – and how the community is coming together – through the joint efforts of many people behind the scenes.
In 2019, McFarland and his childhood friend, Marckus Williams, opened a small store called Wall Street Market with just $500 in capital to launch the venture. They didn’t set out to be grocers, but did have a background in entrepreneurship, with McFarland opening a clothing store and car detailing business following his service in the U.S. military. “We were talking and realized that all of the grocery stores in the neighborhood were closed. We saw the lack of stores in the community and decided to give it a try,” recalls McFarland.
Their efforts caught the attention of local officials. The City of Indianapolis hired Welsh – also known as “Joe the Grocer” – to provide technical assistance for local startup grocery stores, including Wall Street Market. Later, Pete Yonkman, the CEO of Cook Medical, which ran a large medical device manufacturing facility in the neighborhood, connected with Welsh. Their goals aligned, as Yonkman aimed to build a store near the plant as part of a bigger development.
Following Cook Medical’s seed money, other supporters soon came into the project. Goodwill Industries facilitated a $600,000 grant, the Central Indiana Community Foundation raised nearly $750,000 from local donors and the state of Indiana gave resources for economic development.
“We were already doing work in the community and had the network, and invited Pete (Cook) to our small store. Later, he and Kent at Goodwill shot over the idea of us operating a grocery store,” remembers McFarland.
The need was acute. “Indianapolis is known as one of the most food insecure areas in America – they have 275,000 food-insecure people,” reports Welsh. “When I met Michael and Marckus, they were washing cars on the side of the building – they’d take $50 (at a time) to buy food for the store. I thought, ‘If they can hustle like that, I can be here until the end.'”
As investments jumpstarted the project, McFarland and Williams got to work learning the ropes of the grocery business. After their Wall Street Market lease expired, they started apprenticeships at grocery stores around the United States and completed their retail grocery certificates at Martin University, an HBCU in Indianapolis. They took their learnings back to Indy Fresh Market, where they serve as operators in a rent-to-own arrangement.
A welcome sign signals the inclusive approach of Indy Fresh Market.
The Startup Launches
The 16,772-square-foot Indy Fresh Market at 6160 E. 38th Street officially opened its doors on Sept. 27. These days, McFarland, Williams and Welsh are onsite as the business gets off the ground and provides fresh, healthy food to residents who no longer have to take public transportation or walk up six miles to go to their nearest store. Welsh plans to be around for the next few months.
“We expect a lot of activity around Thanksgiving and Christmas to help us close out the year,” reported McFarland, adding that feedback and further assistance has been positive. “We have been receiving a lot of support and a lot of commitment from local churches, who are encouraging their congregations to patronize our grocery stores.
“It can be challenging, like dealing with the amount of employees we have, but it makes work exciting,” he continued. “This has been rewarding almost more rewarding than when I was in active duty. I used to get a lot of ‘thank you’s’ then, but it’s different now – I have community members who come up crying, with tears running down their face, about the impact that this has had on them.”
In just a short time, the store has become a hub in the Arlington Woods neighborhood. “It’s like a community meeting place. I’m definitely seeing a lot of people I haven’t seen in years on a daily basis,” McFarland notes.
Indy Fresh Market teamed up with Lenovo to create a digital advertising and merchandising platform.
A Format for the Future
Welsh believes that this kind of project – which he dubbed “The Cook Model” after the investor Cook Medical Group – can serve as an example for other underserved areas. The crux of the initiative, he points out, is the partnership between local BIPOC entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, government and local nonprofit groups. He also underscored the importance of retail certificate programs that educate and inspire prospective owners.
“When you start battling food insecurity, you can get philanthropy and government help, but if you don’t have entrepreneurs to go into the store, then it does not work,” he explains.
For his part, Welsh is working on other similar projects around the country and reaching out to more universities to offer retail certificate programs. “People are beginning to pay attention and learn what food security really is,” he says, adding that McFarland and Williams are the forefront of a new generation of owners. “They are role models and community leaders by who they are and are inspiring young folks who are working there.”