In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?
In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Christopher Greco, President CEO of Storewise, Inc.
Storewise exists to help independent grocers rise against competitors by creating software that automates manual tasks and reduces errors; protecting profits. This helps to ensure the doors stay open for the communities they serve. Learn more at www.storewise.io.
Christopher Greco took leadership of Storewise in August 2020, bringing both large enterprise and early-stage experience to the organization which serves independent grocers representing upwards of 21K stores within the highly competitive $1T grocery industry. Critical to their local communities, independent grocers compete against national giants including Walmart, Amazon and Dollar stores.
Greco has served in leadership roles at AT&T, Sprint, and Symantec, and proved his early-stage know-how as part of the leadership team that scaled SaaS company Location Labs to a $220M acquisition, then global cybersecurity provider AVG to a $1.3B acquisition by Avast. Chris is author of the book 8 Steps to Overcoming Everyday Adversity, which enjoys endorsement by leaders including former Vice Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Bill Owens, and a 2022 Maxy Award as the Inspirational & Self-Help category Runner-Up.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
I’ve been in technology and software for more than 20 years. I started my career in Telecom then joined Location Labs, a SaaS Startup based in the Bay Area, to drive adoption of world-class mobile security products. I was part of the leadership team that scaled the company and then exited to run a global sales team for Symantec, which was then acquired by Broadcom, so I exited again. Shortly thereafter, I became President and CEO of Storewise.
What led you to this particular career path?
I enjoy challenges and have had the opportunity to overcome many, both personally and in business. These have been life lessons that have prepared me well for the world of early stage ventures and left me undaunted by the tremendous challenges that new and scaling businesses face. I believe that small businesses are the fabric of America! These organizations are mission driven and every single person on the team has a vital role to play. It’s an environment that suits me very well.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
While with Symantec, I was at the Pentagon on September 11, 2019 and unexpectedly met President George W. Bush while participating in a memorial ceremony. Earlier in my career, I traveled with Governor Jeb Bush to South America as part of a technology trade group. In college, I interned under President H.W. Bush. It was pretty interesting to meet all three leaders over the course of my business career.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
Being part of an early stage company that scaled into a $220M and then $1.3B acquisition is a testament to a team’s success. I sacrificed a comfortable corporate job to take a leap of faith with a Silicon valley start-up and we were competing against large giants (maybe flying below the radar) . We were delivering technology that a large section of the mobile phone carrying population cared about.
The biggest lessons were two fold. First, you’re never too small to make an impact. In fact, being small and nimble allows an organization to move quickly and solve problems for people, sometimes better and faster than larger rivals. Second, to make meaningful progress (personally and professionally) requires some level of risk. “The sure thing boat never gets far from shore.”
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Of course! My wife is first and foremost. There was a time in my career when I was making 50+ flights a year. While raising children, that would not have been possible without a supportive spouse.
During periods of intense travel, I have a personal policy to avoid Sunday flights. Sunday travel means missing golf with your daughter, dinner with the family, church etc. You wake up and plan your whole day around flying out.
I became a big 6am Monday morning flier and, in many cases, took the red-eye back on Wednesday night arriving early Thursday morning. I didn’t want my family to feel that I was gone all the time. If the whole week is travel, Sunday — Thursday, you see the toll it takes on your family. Monday — Wednesday feels better. If things aren’t taken care of on the personal front, it’s hard to be successful professionally.
In each stage of my career — from growing a business, to exits and working in larger companies — having a group of mentors and advisors has been invaluable, especially the ones that are generous and unconditional with their time.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Perseverance — (I wrote a book about it!) Things always take longer and are harder than what they initially seem. This is especially true in building and growing a business.
When I was named CEO, it was Aug ’20 during the height of Covid, I had to reset growth expectations with the Board early. To my team’s credit, with as difficult as it was to scale, we “grinded” working long hours, traveling when needed and doing whatever it took to meet the forecast.
Faith-based — People who know me best, recognize that my faith influences how I lead. I think many great leaders share similar traits and this is one where I will relentlessly practice. I know it engenders trust by my team, the people that they lead and almost anyone we may do business with. Character begins at the top.
There’s been a few business meals that I’ve had this year and last to where, for the first time that I can recall in quite a while, we prayed before enjoying the meal together. And it was the other person sitting across from me who initiated it. I’ve found that people are more faith-based than one would think and that’s good for business and, given our times, for the healing of our country.
Transparency — I’m always direct with my team with both praise and feedback. They never need to guess where we stand and that clarity is necessary in order to have mutual trust.
Taken from the Patrick Lencioni playbook, and in the spirit of healthy conflict, I asked my team to give me feedback on my performance, not 1x1 with each of them, rather together as a group. That way everybody heard each other and my response to it. It’s never easy to get critical feedback, but 100% necessary to have a high performing team.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Your best days are ahead of you.” There’s nothing greater than human potential. Setbacks are temporary and no matter what you’re facing, it will pass. In my own personal life, I’ve had the opportunity to rise above adversity in many instances. Specifically, my family suffered the loss of my father when I was a teenager and this inspired me to author a book of guidance for my own children. Those circumstances also shaped my outlook in ways that work well for early stage and growth ventures.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?
According to the USDA’s most recent food access research report, more than 19 million people have limited access to a supermarket with fresh produce. 1 in 9 people in the US struggle with hunger and that number jumps to 1 in 7 when you look solely at children. A food desert is an area void of affordable access to fresh foods and produce within 1 mile of your residence in urban areas and within 10 miles in rural areas.
While there may technically be food at convenience stores and gas stations nearby, these are places where there is no grocery store and no fresh produce available to nurture the people and children living in the vicinity. In many cases, the independent grocers that served previous generations in these communities have had to close their doors. Once they’re gone, there’s no competition and the food that is available becomes more expensive. The most recent USDA study found that what fresh foods are available in food deserts are often cost-prohibitive to low-income families. By the way, the latest USDA report on this subject was published in 2010.
Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?
There are many factors leading to the creation of food deserts, but the primary is lack of access to fresh food like produce, meats, and bakery. Where Storewise makes a difference is in supporting Independent Grocers by delivering simple, affordable technology enabling them to operate their stores better.Technology that helps a store improve how they buy, reduce shrink, identify potential out of stocks and achieve better margins on top items helps them keep their doors open.
When a small community’s grocery store closes the consequences are myriad — from loss of wages to loss of access to fresh produce, to decreased property values. It leaves a hole in the fabric of the community as well as the local economy.
Center aisle only shopping — Cheerios, chips, and soda rather than bakery, produce and meat — creates health issues as well. Studies by the Food Access Research Atlas reveal that limited access to supermarkets, supercenters, grocery stores, or other sources of healthy and affordable food may impede the ability of some Americans to achieve a healthy diet.
It can also affect the surrounding restaurants, hospitality, and retail through decreased traffic flow. It’s particularly disruptive in rural areas where there are fewer supermarket options to begin with.
Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?
One common food desert driver in rural areas is the increase in dollar-store model businesses which can beat independent grocer prices on convenience and center-aisle grocery items without consistently offering meaningful access to fresh produce. In fact, municipalities are pushing back on the growth of these dollar stores.
According to Civil Eats, a national non-profit, Dollar General opens three stores per day. It’s estimated that Dollar General will open another 1,000+ stores in 2022. Stores like these contribute to food deserts in America by driving out independent grocers.
When dollar stores put independent grocers out of business, the community has no access to easily attainable produce. Thus, the number of food deserts increases and our communities continue to suffer.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
The key to preventing food deserts, within our ability, is bolstering the economic health of independent grocers by enabling them to leverage their strengths and compete more effectively against the competition. That’s where Storewise comes in.
Keeping an independent supermarket in business and catering to its surrounding areas largely depends on its ability to compete against national chains and dollar stores, and other stores outside of the grocery industry.
Automating manual tasks, like bulk price changes; streamlining communications with wholesalers and warehouses; identifying loss issues — are all areas where independents may use spreadsheets, paper, and intuition alone to solve them. It’s an area of tremendous growth opportunity and can be one of the differences between a thriving supermarket or a store closing.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
Independent grocers are entrepreneurial. Our industry is full of smart, hard-working people and many of these grocery stores have been family businesses for generations. Becoming a part of their story and seeing the family business continue on to another generation is rewarding.
I recently interviewed third-generation grocer and Super C President Nikki Carver of Oklahoma who has been successfully defending eight rural supermarket locations from big-box chains. You can hear her speak passionately about her industry on the Storewise podcast. Nikki’s family has run Super C since 1959 and she’s an amazing example of the transparency, resilience and character we just discussed.
In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
We see a few big opportunities to prevent food deserts by keeping independent grocery stores competitive and profitable.
The first is that civic leaders need to emphasize the community benefit of shopping locally. When people shop local they ensure enough competition with national chains to keep costs down, employment up, and choices available. The University of Minnesota Duluth recently released an economic impact analysis by the American Independent Business Alliance showing that independent retailers return more than three times as much money per dollar of sales to the local economy than chain competitors.
Secondly, Regulators must enforce existing antitrust laws to sustain a competitive food retail marketplace. Congressional Representatives need to revive the Robinson-Patman Act. People can only eat what they can access, and antitrust laws help to create parity with the dominant chains creating anti-competitive situations of economic discrimination against independent retailers. Enforcing the existing antitrust laws will help to protect independent grocers and the health of communities across the country.
Food aid and food assistance programs are critically important to millions of families in our country. Ensuring that our Congress and federal agencies continue to improve these programs will also aid the independent grocers who provide that nutrition, in-turn helping them to keep their doors open and prevent the creation of a food desert.
Thirdly there’s much to be done in the way of tax reform that could help prevent food deserts. Supermarket tax credits in underserved areas and reducing sales taxes on food items, for example.
Lastly, something as seemingly simple as credit card swipe fee reform could create more favorable conditions for Independents, thus improving options and prices for consumers. Many in the independent grocery space are advocating for lower credit and debit card acceptance fees for merchants and customers as these are costs that affect independent stores disproportionately.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
The National Grocers Association (NGA) and FMI have strong governmental relations groups advocating for independent grocers in ways that will ensure their continued service to communities that might otherwise experience a food desert.
Organizations like the nonprofit grocery chain, Daily Table, help underserved communities access fresh foods at affordable prices.
In my opinion, every independent grocery store fighting to stay open and continue the tradition of community relationships, beautiful and affordable produce, meat and baked goods should be proud of the work that they do to prevent food deserts.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
Enforcing the Robinson-Patman Act would be at the top of my list. Antitrust law enforcement is critical in every industry, not just my own. A competitive marketplace is part of what makes our country exceptional.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’d like to inspire people to shop locally and invest in their local community. We don’t want to live in a big box store only world. As I mentioned before, America is better when small businesses thrive. We all benefit by supporting the local supermarket owner whether they operate 1 or 100 stores.
I’d also like to influence folks to take a good look at their nutrition and advocate for fresh produce and quality meats and baked goods. There’s nothing more important than our health and there’s enough science and data pointing to nutrition as a key driver of health that we can’t ignore it. Simply stated, Independent grocers are truly committed to helping people have access to healthier foods.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
This is a tough one.
For the sake of Food Desert prevention, I might meet with Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Competition Agency Director Holly Vedova.
Thomas J. Vilsack would be invited, as the United States Secretary of Agriculture whose department oversees the creation and enactment of Food and Nutrition Services.
Lastly, Dr Eric Lander, might be interested in breakfast with his role leading the Office of Science and Technology Policy at The White House.
I’d love to even meet in a rural town to break bread, even at an Independent store we serve to see how more efficiently they operate when they are enabled with the right technology, and see how their customers frequent the store. Then I would like them to imagine that town without them.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
If you’re interested in the ways in which Storewise can protect profitability for independent grocery stores, of course visit www.Storewise.io. My team would be glad to walk you through our simple to use platform that can facilitate smoother and automatic business operations. We take a lot of pride in being part of independent grocers’ success stories.
I’m also a public speaker on the topic of overcoming adversity and readily share my personal stories with schools, interest groups and churches. My book, 8 Steps to Overcoming Everyday Adversity, is available in book stores and on Amazon, and just won runner up in the inspiration and self help category of the Maxy Awards. Speaking engagement information can be found on my website christophergreco.org.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.