Growing up, Jeffrey Brown ’86 helped out in his father’s Philadelphia grocery store. He worked closely with workers in all parts of the store, getting to know them and their roles. “They were teaching me how they did their job and how to do it the right way,” Brown says.
The store was located in a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood, and among customers and workers, Brown and her father were generally the only white people in the store. This experience left a lasting impression on Brown. It taught him to be comfortable and to accept people who were different from him. It taught him empathy and the ability to put himself in another person’s shoes.
As he grew up to become a grocer himself, the fourth generation in his family to do so, these experiences informed his decisions and the way he ran his own stores. “Lessons learned are really in my DNA at this point,” says Brown. “They make me a better entrepreneur, a better retailer.”
Brown is the founder, chairman and CEO of Brown’s Super Stores, which owns a dozen supermarkets in the Philadelphia area. About half of those supermarkets are located in low-income neighborhoods, places similar to where Brown’s father had his groceries, in areas known as food desserts because they are otherwise devoid of grocery stores.
In their communities, these supermarkets have become essential. When anger and frustration over police brutality spilled onto the streets of Philadelphia in late spring and looters damaged two of those supermarkets and forced them to temporarily close, Brown’s thoughts immediately turned. to the inhabitants of these communities. “How do people get their food the next morning? ” he was thinking.
The communities, meanwhile, were also thinking of those supermarkets, and all the support Brown had shown them over the years.
More than food
Brown’s supermarkets are more than just a place to buy food. They provide clinics offering affordable health care services and credit unions that do not require a minimum balance to have an account. Supermarkets also make a point of hiring ex-prisoners, a population that may struggle to find work. Of the 2,500 people employed at Brown’s supermarkets, around 700 are formerly incarcerated. “We have a very different business from the average grocery store,” Brown says.
Brown’s commitment to the community led him to co-found the Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund earlier this year. The fund provides forgivable loans, up to $3,000, to small businesses in Pennsylvania affected by COVID-19 or social unrest. So far, the fund has raised about $2.5 million and granted some 550 loans, with the ultimate goal of granting 1,000 loans. Brown and the other members of the fund’s board review applications daily and offer business advice to recipients.
When looting forced two of his supermarkets to close temporarily, Jeffrey Brown ’86 wondered, “How are people going to find their food the next morning?”
From hair salons to nail salons to restaurants, small businesses have a profound effect on communities, Brown says. “They play an important role in strengthening their communities,” he says. The jobs they provide are particularly important. “To shut down these places is to end people’s livelihoods,” says Brown. If too many small businesses are lost, the result could be catastrophic. “It’s a ripple effect,” Brown says. “It could create a huge downward spiral.”
Considering all that Brown has done for the community, his customers appreciate him and his stores. This was evident when looting broke out in Philadelphia. “I had stores where people were showing up and trying to protect them,” Brown says. After a store was looted, the community came out in force to clean up. “They got there before us,” says Brown. “There were already hundreds of them.”
In the end, two supermarkets suffered serious damage. In the aftermath, Brown donated food to community organizations until stores could reopen, and he received 15,000 messages, from texts and emails to Facebook posts, expressing his support. “A client reached out to me every day for a month on Facebook to encourage me,” says Brown. When both stores finally reopened, busy prayer services were held at each location.
The outpouring of support reaffirmed for Brown the value of his supermarkets and his work in the community. It meant a lot to him. “It confirmed my belief that this is something special, that it matters,” he says.
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