Wendell Pierce On 'The Wire,' 'Treme' And Food

When actor Wendell Pierce returned to his native New Orleans to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, he noticed a lack of grocery stores selling fresh food. Now, Pierce is opening Sterling Farms — a chain of stores in the Ninth Ward that will sell food at affordable prices for low-income shoppers.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Actor Wendell Pierce became famous as Bunk, also known as Detective William Moreland in "The Wire." More recently, he starred in the HBO series "Treme" as the struggling trombone player Antoine Batiste.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TREME")

WENDELL PIERCE: (as Antoine Batiste) It's always good to see one of the ladies embracing the delights of marital infidelity.

(as Antoine Batiste) Blame the girls, too. Yeah. Right, fellows?

(as Antoine Batiste) Because when it comes to stolen love, Antoine Batiste has always been forced to be the villain. Come on, hit me, my brothers.

CONAN: That series, of course, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Pierce's hometown, where he could not help but notice that neighborhoods that gave birth to some of America's best-known cuisine had become virtual food deserts. So now, he's helped establish Sterling Farms, a grocery store with a mission to sell fresh food at affordable prices. And Wendell Pierce joins us now from member station WWNO in New Orleans. And nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

PIERCE: Always good to be back. Thank you.

CONAN: And a lot of celebrities will front the money to start a project, but you're immersing yourself in this. So what do you know about running grocery stores?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: I actually am very fortunate to know a man who knows a man...

CONAN: I see.

PIERCE: ...who knows how to run grocery stores. And we put together a great team. You know, this was - it's a labor of love because I love the city, and I want to be a part of the recovery. I always said that years from now when some kid walks up to me and say, Mr. Pierce, what did you do in New Orleans' darkest hours? I want to have something decent to say. And so while I've participated in the last four years of trying to redevelop my neighborhood of Pontchartrain Park with housing, I knew that you couldn't bring people back at the same time when you didn't have those real milestones and, you know, the pillars of the community that you need just for infrastructure, like grocery stores.

And so much of New Orleans was a food desert, and I realized that that American industry and so many underserved areas in this country and also in New Orleans, they sit in the sideline, you know, and they don't participate. They don't get in there. They see the neighborhoods. It's not viable. It's something that they lose interest in. They don't see that the demographics of the community is something that would support their product or their stores. And I have to disagree wholeheartedly. And I realized that I wasn't going to sit on the sideline anymore.

And I convinced my partners that we should fill that need. That's classic business 101. That's what economics is all about. You see the need, and you fill it. And I think that so many people in those underserved communities around the country, and especially here in New Orleans, have demonstrated loyalty of brand, loyalty of stores because they've traveled a good half hour to get to your store on a consistent basis. And all they ask is that maybe you can bring the product to us. And so that's what Sterling Farms is all about - making sure that people have access to decent, affordable fresh food groceries.

CONAN: And I speak to you from Washington, D.C., a city which has, in many of its neighborhoods, similar kinds of problems, where...

PIERCE: Yes.

CONAN: ...the only food available is either at the corner store - and that's limited and not necessarily the best quality - or at a fast food restaurant.

PIERCE: Right. And, you know, people will go to what's accessible to them, you know? And I'm learning that because as a division of Sterling Farms, we also - we started out with convenience stores. The first stores were convenience stores as we were constructing the first grocery store. And I found that even in our convenience store of Sterling Express, our fresh foods section, as limited as it may be, because of the size of the store or whatever, people actually use it. It's the impulse buy. We actually have the section near the cashier. And instead of picking up that piece of candy or, you know, or something else that's, you know, occasionally nice...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: ...but not nutritious, people were grabbing a banana, grabbing an orange, grabbing an apple, grabbing a salad. And now, I don't have any empirical data to support it, but I watched it happened.

And the other thing that happens in underserved areas - those corner stores that do go in, they know that they have a captive community in need of access to wonderful groceries, so what they do is they gouge them. So even in our convenient stores, we found that the eggs, the bread, the milk at a decent price - we actually have wives sending their husbands to the gas station where our convenience store is just to get eggs, get some - to get milk because it's reasonable, and it's close by. So my belief is coming to reality.

CONAN: Where are the food that you sell coming from? Are they coming from local farmers, or are they coming from the same suppliers who would have been supplying whatever it is, a Piggly Wiggly, if that had been there.

PIERCE: Yes, we're actually a part of an Associated Grocers, which is a wholesaler and distributor here, which most of the grocery stores in the area use, and some of the more successful stores have used. We also have been in discussions with farmer cooperatives, the Black Farmers Association, also, because what we want to do is try to highlight the farmer of the month in the stores, and have their products there.

And so the distribution chain is there and is set up, you know, and our wholesaler is just happy to see that somebody is going to areas that they've always known could be successful, but no one took the time to - to investigate it, or like I said, get off the sidelines and bring the American commerce to those underserved communities. Because they're waiting for someone to mine the wealth that is there – to mine the wealth that is there. And I just believe that that is your classic American aesthetic of business: seeing the need, filling it, and I'm a true capitalist in that sense.

There are some that believe that there's a finite amount of wealth, and their actions have demonstrated that, you know, hoarding product, hoarding opportunity, only my kids go to these schools, only this store will be in this area, only this people will get an opportunity and access to what can be an economic engine. And my belief system is completely opposite, which is, I think, that the root of what American opportunity is about, which is more people having access to more products will breed ideas, innovation, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and in turn, grow wealth.

CONAN: How big a chain is this going to be?

PIERCE: Well, at the end of the year, we're going to have - we hope to have about three or four convenience stores and two grocery stores. We've had inquiries as far north as Chicago. We've had a group in the Gulf Coast and the southeast region of the country, interested in bringing us down there. And it's basically people who see the need and the food deserts that are across this country, that they're seeing someone who is - who wants to address it. And so they're happy to see someone in the American industry trying to make it a part of their business plan and trying to bring a solution to the table.

One of the things I've always said is, you know, there's enough complaining to go around. We can complain all day. I always ask my team when they were working with me, let's bring solutions to the table. Let's engage people in a way that will bring results instead of just hyperbole. Let's stop talking about it. Let's do it.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you about a marketing decision. Why Sterling Farms? Why not Bunk and Batiste(ph)?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: Yeah. You know, we went through a series of, you know, what they say you're supposed to do as picking name and the process and all, and sterling is something that is precious and denotes a wonderful feeling of richness. But the real deal is, I wanted freshness, so the idea of farms came about, and sterling is actually the name of my business partner's father, Sterling Henry. And he actually ran a pharmacy for about 40 years at the Lower 9th Ward. And the Lower 9th Ward is one of the areas that we designate that we want to try to get into. It's a thriving community that was hard-hit. It was our ground zero after the flood, and it hasn't had a decent grocery store in 20 years. And so Sterling is an homage to Troy Henry's father and the Henry family, which have been doing business in the Lower 9th Ward for four decades. So Sterling and farms came together and became Sterling Farms.

CONAN: I have been to the Lower 9th a couple of times since Katrina, and it was not doing well the last time I was there, but that was - a couple of three years ago. How is the Lower 9th doing now?

PIERCE: It still has a long way to go. It still has a long way to go. We have to fight people's ideas of letting it go. I think there's still element that believes the Lower 9th Ward isn't viable, isn't worthy of the focus of infrastructure and bringing back commerce. But you have to realize 70 percent of the people own their homes there, it's the working poor. And these were the people who are the heart and soul of the city. This is the human capital that we so often, in America, neglect. You know, it's - we forget that it's people that really, really drive the country, in commerce especially, the workers and the consumers.

And when people are saying, I'm going to put everything in my being to come back, I just think that, you know, we should - we, as a society, should join them in that effort. You know, that's what the real recovery of New Orleans is going to be about. We can't look at the rose-colored glasses and just will it to come back. We have to meet people halfway, you know, who are saying, we're willing to come back. We're going to make the effort to come back. We know that the city is too important to let die, and I still think that we can go a lot farther and bring in the infrastructure to the Lower 9th Ward.

Underserved communities are neglected from the outside in. You know, we're talking about citizenry that have demonstrated a love for their community, have demonstrated a loyalty to the community and city as a whole, and they are the heart and soul of culture and cuisine for so many decades in New Orleans. And to let that go, means we've lost perspective of what is truly important in the society, and that's the root of what our culture is all about, you know, the intersection between people and life itself. And when we lose the priority of that, then we've lost our way as a city. And so the 9th Ward is emblematic of that. While a lot of the city is thriving, until the 9th Ward comes back, we won't be whole, and that's why we believe we should be there as a company.

CONAN: A grocery store is not everything a neighborhood needs, but it is one of the things a neighborhood needs.

PIERCE: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Do you hope that, alongside the growth of Sterling Farms, will come those other necessities - a better school system, the infrastructure elements of sewage and power and water - everything that the people need to get their community going again?

PIERCE: Absolutely. You know, I thought of food because of sustenance. It's the very heart of living, making sure that you - or have nutrition and actually survive, but that's just the first step. You know, there's quality of life, and there's the necessities of infrastructure and roads and, like you said, and sewage and lights and security and all of that. But the dedication that the people in the New Orleans's area, and specifically the 9th Ward, but all over New Orleans, you - what you're seeing in New Orleans is a demonstration of the greatest part of the American aesthetic, something you haven't seen since the end of World War II with the Marshall Plan in Europe. People are going to rebuild this city, street by street, house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood until it gets back on its feet.

And while we may be out of the public discourse for the country and even the city, we're living this day by day, and that's what we feel as though the grocery business that we've decided to go into, is a small part of that. It's a small part of that, but a vital part of that. Because in troubled times even, the one thing you know, economically, is - always invest in food, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: And so in the middle of a recession, of depression, you know, people can't go without two things, you know, air and food and, you know, love, but that's another thing, but it's important. And so we're a small piece of a larger puzzle.

CONAN: Wendell Pierce, good luck to you and Sterling Farms.

PIERCE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Wendell Pierce joined us from WWNO, our member station in New Orleans. And just before we go to a break, a news that strong 7.6 earthquake shook parts of Mexico City this afternoon and made building sway in the Mexican capital. President Felipe Calderon said there are no immediate reports of damage. We'll continue to watch the situation. Stay with NPR News for the latest. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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