Community Grocery Celebrates One Year

On the one-year anniversary of the opening of Blue Jackalope Groceries & Coffee, the only community grocery in Tulsa’s historic Crosby Heights neighborhood, owner/proprietor F. Scott Smith was running the counter, sampling snap peas just trucked in from Bixby. He shared his snack and visited with the Friday morning regulars. The bike rack in front of the store was full.
As if this scene wasn’t enough reason to launch a corner grocery, “I saw my neighbors using public transportation to lug their groceries home. Or, spending their food stamps at the convenience stores and not having many choices,” Smith said. “This neighborhood needed a better way.”
The store, the former commercial property-turned-Church of Christ-turned-Tulsa Peace House measuring just shy of 900 SF, opened May 29 of last year – just in time to tune in to the height of the hand-wringing on Wall Street on the radio behind the counter.
Smith had spent the past seven months readying the store for opening. To search for more fulfilling work, he walked away from 11 years in the oil industry, where he worked through the blue collar ranks and into quality assurance.
Though his experience with documenting how businesses run provided a good launching pad for what Scott was to learn about the grocery business, the learning curve has been steep, he said. In short, Smith has spent the last 52 weeks in a crash course.
“I spent all my money and all my time getting this place ready, and learning how to run a business,” he said. “I wanted to start with a demonstration kitchen and lots of nice, down-home, funky fixtures. But, reality met the pocketbook. So, I sourced everything off Craigslist.”
His goal from the get-go was to “force my opinion about nutrition on the people who shopped here, sway them over to cooking rather than eating out, eating well. I realize we’ve started that conversation. It’s just a very slow process. The change that lasts and that is really effective has to be subtle and allowed to grow on its own.”
His mission with the store with the funny name – one that sprung from an eventful camping trip with his four children – is to model community as well as nutritional responsibility. Smith sources much of the contents of his produce department from local growers, including Bootstrap Farm in Bixby and Fishers Eggs & Grain in Bristow. Smith carries produce grown just across the street in the Crosbie Heights Community Farm, including arugula, a variety of lettuces, greens and radishes.
“With the help of the local growers, we’re able to get produce in here,” Scott said. “I saw the produce consumption grow last summer. People really started taking more of an interest in cooking and eating well. The local aspect of it is a good selling point. It’s almost a patriotic thing.”
The store is haunted by regulars, ranging from the twenty-something bike jockey to the elderly Crosbie Heights neighbor.
“What’s really made this store something – all the people, the interesting characters, who come in,” Smith said. “There’s no telling what’s going to happen in here. It’s very unusual. One of my regulars said, ‘Scott, you are like a tavern that doesn’t serve alcohol.’”
Scott keeps in touch with customers on several levels, from Twitter and e-mail to listening from the chair on the other side of the corner table.
“We’re all getting to know each other. When we get comfortable with our neighbors, it’s much easier to talk about ideas that maybe aren’t part of the mainstream. We can discuss different approaches, how people would like to see things grow and change in the place where they live.”
Those conversations inevitably turn to neighborhood, nutrition and food security. Hand in hand with his work at Blue Jackalope has been Scott’s advocation of the larger Crosbie Heights neighborhood. He helped to form the Tri-Neighborhood Alliance – a grouping of Owen Park, Brady Heights and Crosbie Heights formed to strengthen the political voice of those neighborhoods’ residents – and he’s been busy with Owen Park centennial celebrations.
He also searches with citizens of Tulsa’s north side for answers to the food desert, an area with a low grocery-stores-per-capita ratio, that has formed there since Albertson’s left the state two years ago. The food landscape in east Tulsa is as bad or worse, Scott said.
His solution? Citizens imploring neighborhood convenience store owners for more offerings, including produce.
“Even if there’s just one offering in each food category, we can slowly start to affect some change. We can start shopping daily rather than weekly or biweekly.”
A shot in the arm to this plan would be communal warehouse space for the small stores featuring close-to-the-source, wholesale pricing.
“If we could shop locally for national goods and stock our shelves with items that will keep our customers coming back and give us the opportunity to make money off of it, where we’re not locked into a pricing structure dictated by being a fourth- or fifth-tier receiver, I think we could really create some positive social change here in Tulsa.”
Ahead for Scott and his store are plans to build a commercial kitchen in the basement. The space, roughly half the size of the store, will be Scott’s home for processing produce that has seen better days but is still nutritionally viable into ready-to-eat meals or other offerings. He wants to open the space for local caterers needing a low-cost option for commercial kitchen space.
“It gives us all a chance to make a living doing something we’re passionate about,” Smith said. “When we sit down and talk about success and what makes a person successful, I tend to think about it in terms of finances and dollars. I’m realizing that’s probably not the best way to measure it. It’s really a measure of how much you want to get up and go to work every day.
“To be honest, the business model here sucks. I have to work with distributors who are two or three times removed from the source and everyone puts their markup on it. I don’t have the buying power of a large chain. If it weren’t for the really inexpensive labor costs – meaning, me – then, it’d be tough to make a go of it. As it is, we’re holding our own and keeping the bills paid, working on more offerings.”
“When we figure out how to run this place right, with the best combination of external labor and friendly management, then I’d like to open another store,” Scott said. “I’d love to be part of what’s going on downtown. That all depends on economics.”
Blue Jackalope Groceries and Coffee is open daily, from 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Sun.-Fri. and Sat. 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

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