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A unique take on ‘fresh’ in the new hybrid from Trader Joe’s founder

On my way to the airport following a conference this week in Massachusetts, I took a detour through Boston’s Dorchester area to check out Daily Table, the new “retail store/restaurant” hybrid from the founder of Trader Joe’s.

Located deep in what many would consider “the hood,” nestled among trilevel multifamily homes and overgrown vacant lots where chain grocery stores barely dare to roam, Daily Table, a not-for-profit, one-unit (so far) operation is the brainchild of Doug Rauch. His idea: to create “a new kind of retail grocery store” that will sell “affordable wholesome food to the Dorchester and Boston community.” Read: expired food.

Here’s how the store’s website describes its model and mission: “Simply put: Use one challenge to help tackle another challenge. Use the excess, available food from growers, manufacturers and supermarkets to provide affordable healthy food for the food insecure … Think of us like a T.J. Maxx or Marshall’s for food.” And the food, it clarifies, is safe even though it may be several days past its sell-by, use-by or best-by dates.

Much of the media coverage of the store’s opening this week has focused on the food-waste portion of its mission. Its own site notes that 80 billion pounds of food is wasted in the U.S. each year, about 40 percent of everything we grow.

But one step inside the doors of the small retail space immediately reveals that freshness and community are the much bigger message. How those are conveyed holds lessons for restaurants or any other business selling ready-to-eat food.

Redefining fresh

How does Daily Table play up fresh when the food it’s selling technically is not?

Prepared meals

It appeared that about 40 percent of the food on offer at Daily Table was prepared meals. Closest to the door are refrigerated cases stocked with a variety of housemade soups for $1.49 and similarly priced individual meals, including Salisbury steak and brown rice—a set up not unlike the take-home meal sections at higher end grocers such as Standard Market and Whole Foods. Another case held single-serve containers of fresh pasta.

By using ingredients that are safe, even if past their “best-by” date, Rauch’s operation gives the food new life, in a form that he is able to sell.

Transparency, literally

Not only is the store up-front about the nature of the ingredients, but all the prepared food is packaged and labeled in clear plastic containers so customers can see the quality of the food they’re purchasing.

A large picture window next to the cases of prepared food provides shoppers full view of the staff in the kitchen making the entrees.

Whatever’s available

Because Daily Table sells overstocked product, there was a hodgepodge of grocery items on the shelves and in the cases on the day I visited. There were lots of cans of tuna fish and of tomato sauce, a full freezer case of bagged fish fillets, bags of uncooked pasta offered two for $1.00 (“all shapes!”), boxes of one kind of cereal and one brand of protein bars, for sale by the box for $4.49 or as loosies for 49 cents a bar.

A farmers’ market feel

Daily Table also buys some items from growers, and there were about four different kinds of fresh produce that day. Large wooden crates in the center of the store were overflowing with a bumper crop of corn; the husks weren’t the clean, green color you’d find in supermarkets, but peeling them back revealed perfectly good ears underneath.

There also were a few plastic bins in the refrigerated case: one brimming with fresh stalks of celery, as well as fresh cucumbers and leafy collard greens.

Chalkboard and handwritten signs

Not only practical to keep up with the ever-changing switch out of product for sale, the handwritten signs labeling what’s on the shelves and the more artistically drawn chalkboard signs on the wall explaining the concept to customers, suggest a “what’s good today” vibe that reinforces Daily Table’s freshness philosophy.

Free samples

Another way it proves to shoppers that the food is fresh and good to eat is by offering free samples, something Trader Joe’s is known for. That day, it was the protein bars Daily Table was doling out.

At moments, Rauch himself came out to pass out free bites all the while watching for the reaction and acceptance of customers to the new kind of operation.

Celebrating community

Daily Table’s location is no accident. The health-minded store shares a building with the Healthworks Fitness Center, which provides health education and exercise classes for the Codman District in which it is located. It’s also across from an elementary school, and its approach to “fresh,” healthy offerings and prepared meals serves as powerful countermessaging for the children and families of the community, which has been deemed a food desert.

Walk or bus in

While its website says parking is available across the street, there was no obvious parking lot to be found for Daily Table, only what was available on the residential streets that surround it. It is, however, located right in front of a busy bus stop. Several people I saw leaving the store who weren’t climbing into cars, were simply strolling away with their two or three bags of food, presumably back to their homes or jobs nearby.

Hiring its neighbors

Through the large window into the kitchen, shoppers can see members of the community at work. The store’s team comes almost exclusively from the area, it claims, though it acknowledges it may also need to hire people with specific skills or talent from the Greater Boston area.

Intimate interaction

What Trader Joe’s fans will recognize at Daily Table is that neighborhood grocery store look and feel. Folding signboards on the sidewalk invite passersby to come inside for great food. Beyond the doors, it has the same small wooden checkout counters Trader Joe’s does, that allow clerks to get up close and personal to converse with local customers.

Zip-code zoning

Clerks ask new customers to fill out a reply card with their zip code and phone number, as a way “to know who’s supporting us.” It’s also the way to sign up for the free membership program; zip codes allow Daily Table to fulfill its not-for-profit mission, and restrict shoppers to those who live and work areas that are economically challenged.

Sharing personal recipes

Another chalkboard sign on the wall near the wooden managers’ station (positioned at the back corner of the store as at Trader Joe’s) encourages shoppers to share their own recipes. If the store uses a recipe and sells it as prepared food in its refrigerated cases, it will give that shopper the credit, delivering on its stated promise: “We will sell what our customers want.” To encourage shoppers to cook healthy meals at home with the food they purchase, Daily Table also hands out its own recipe cards.

Upon leaving, I purchased a reusable shopping bag, not wanting to take advantage of the low-priced yet tempting food meant for cash-strapped members of the community, but wanting to show support. And I put it to immediate use to lighten some of the load from my single carry-on bag.

Ironically, as I was standing in line at the Wolfgang Puck Express counter at the airport waiting for a sandwich, a young mother with her baby who also was buying lunch there, asked me about my bag. “I’ve been meaning to visit that place. Fresh food, no waste, it sounds like such a great idea,” she said enthusiastically.

I asked if she lives in that area and she said she does not. Her interest, it seems, is just further confirmation that the concept, its mission and its message has the potential not only to be replicated but to resonate far beyond the community it serves.

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