Inside the first year of Pontiac’s Sprout Fresh Food Store
Sprout Fresh Food Store at 580 Huron St. is one of 50 new businesses to receive its license in Pontiac this year.
As a part of our end of the year coverage, The Oakland Press caught up with its co-owners, Cole Yoakum, founder of Micah 6 Community nonprofit and his fiance, Bethany Blackburn.
The duo moved to Pontiac in 2012, buying a home in the same neighborhood as Sprout. They’ve since started two greenhouses in the city near the food store, running pop-up markets throughout city during the summer. The group also purchased the old Webster Elementary School building in 2016, at 640 Huron Street, for $200,000 with plans to transform the space into a community center.
Sprout was one of two new businesses to start up in the neighborhoods on the west side of the city this year. The goal of the store, which sells produce from the Micah 6 greenhouses and local farms, is to promote healthy food access within walking distance for residents.
“We knew the business wouldn’t make us millionaires, or even a lot of money, but that didn’t matter, it’s a part of our work in this neighborhood to stabilize it,” Yoakum said.
While foot traffic has ebbed and flowed for the store, a decent number of residents have become regulars at Sprout. Sitting at a stool next to the counter while Blackburn packs up a bag of fresh kale for a customer, Yoakum effortlessly rattles off a list of names.
“It’s nice, to have someone who has built you into their routine because they see value in what you do,” Yoakum said. “We’re taking a gamble here, with the hope that they come back, and that they go and tell someone else.”
But the group still isn’t reaching their target demographic, according to Blackburn.
“We get a lot of traffic from across the street, which is more middle class, that’s not necessarily our original clientele. But we’re seeing an increase in the traffic from the lower income neighborhoods … on some days it feels like we’re just a vegetable store for Seminole Hills,” Blackburn said.
On other days however, like one this past August, that does change.
“We had these two, 16-year-old kids come in, one just found out she was pregnant and the doctor said she needed more fruits and vegetables. That’s what it took for those two to walk in,” Blackburn said.
Finding out what it will take to bring the rest of the community in to either the store or the pop-up markets is something the pair is working on. Both say they learned this year that much of the lower income neighborhood residents can be uncomfortable with vegetables, either not knowing how to cook them or fearing words like “organic” because they believe it’s out of their price range.
Recipe cards, cooking classes and transforming an ambulance into a mobile Sprout store are some of the solutions currently on the table. The group recently received a $10,000 grant from Flagstar Bank to retrofit the ambulance, with plans to have it up and running by this summer.
As Blackburn packed up groceries for Carola Waterman, a 46-year-old stay at home mother with four children, she shared her thoughts on what Sprout has meant to her.
“I was excited when it opened, I can walk here about anytime of day and it’s clean and safe, and the kids like it here too, my nephew just loves Bethany. They feel really comfortable here and that’s why I tell people about it,” Waterman said.