Wendell Pierce On 'Making Groceries' In The Big Easy

New Orleans might be famous for its culinary legacy, but the Big Easy also has neighborhoods without access to fresh, healthy food. Now actor Wendell Pierce is bringing grocery stores to some neglected parts of his home town. Host Michel Martin speaks with Pierce about his new grocery chain, Sterling Farms.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Police in New Orleans are investigating a shooting that took place yesterday during a Mother's Day parade. New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas says law enforcement is still investigating the matter.

RONAL SERPAS: It appears that these two or three people just, for a reason unknown to us, started shooting at, towards or in the crowd. It was over in just a couple seconds. Police were everywhere.

MARTIN: We'll be following this story, so please stay tuned to your public radio station and NPR.org for more information as this story develops.

But, now, we'd like to turn to another story out of New Orleans, an effort to expand that city's food choices. You might wonder why that's necessary in a city that is world-renowned for its cuisine, but our next guest tells us that the Big Easy also has food deserts. Those are neighborhoods without ready access to fresh, health food and that prompted him to try to do something about it.

We're talking here about actor Wendell Pierce. He stars in HBO's New Orleans drama, "Treme," playing musician Antoine Batiste. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SERIES, "TREME")

WENDELL PIERCE: (as Antoine Batiste) (Singing) I need your love so badly. I love you, oh, so madly, but I don't stand a ghost of a chance with you. Oh, you.

MARTIN: And Wendell Pierce, along with his partners, have invested in a chain of convenience stores and a full service grocery store, which has just opened and he is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

PIERCE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you grew up in New Orleans. Do you remember food deserts, as they are now called? I mean, we didn't call them that then, but do you remember this being an issue back when you were growing up?

PIERCE: It wasn't a major issue. It wasn't an issue for me, definitely, but in the lower ninth ward, you know, there hasn't been a decent grocery store in 20 years, so just as I was leaving New Orleans for New York, it started to become an issue and it's something that, for me, growing up in New Orleans where so much of the culture is based around food, it's unacceptable.

MARTIN: Well, how did this happen? Do you know? I mean, how did it come about that there were areas where it's just hard to get fresh food?

PIERCE: Well, it's something that's happening all over the country and American industry has decided that certain neighborhoods, for whatever reasons, aren't viable, aren't some projected area that they should be investing in where they have decided to stand on the sidelines and not kind of participate in the economic exchange that happens with their consumer base there.

And what happens in these underserved areas - people have demonstrated their loyalty to the stores by having to travel a distance, showing loyalty to their brand or to the product and all they ask in return is that those same American stores come to their neighborhoods, but they choose to stand on the sidelines and that's where we are different. At Sterling Farms, we're saying we're stepping up to the plate. We're actually going to those areas that are underserved because we see them as emerging markets.

MARTIN: Did Hurricane Katrina make it worse?

PIERCE: Yeah, it did. You know, because so many people were displaced, so many neighborhoods were destroyed, 80 percent of the city was destroyed and then, as I returned home and started to rebuild my neighborhood in Pontchartrain Park, I realized that you can't ask people to come back if you don't have the commercial strips coming back, the commercial districts coming back. And that's when I started to do the research and realized that so much of New Orleans is also suffering from food deserts.

MARTIN: What was the most difficult thing about getting this all done?

PIERCE: Well, first of all, the mechanics and logistics of opening a grocery store. As an actor, I can tell you I had a quick and sharp learning curve. It's a lot of work, a lot of moving parts, but the most difficult part is making sure that everybody is onboard when it comes to the banking institutions, my partners and everyone, you know, participating in the business sense to make sure that it was a viable idea to them to show them the economic benefits and to see those areas, as I said before, as an opportunity and not something that you should be adverse to.

MARTIN: Was the issue here - was the issue specific to New Orleans or specific to the kind of neighborhood you're trying to serve? I mean, by that, I mean is it that, when you first approach people who have the wherewithal to get this done and to invest in these kinds of businesses, is it that they don't believe that there could possibly be a food desert in New Orleans or do they feel that the people there don't want fresh food?

PIERCE: No.

MARTIN: What is it that - what's the mentalities that's the first hurdle that you have to overcome?

PIERCE: The mentality is they know that they have a captured consumer, you know, a consumer that they know has to travel to get food. They don't have to invest in that neighborhood. They don't have to go to that area. And they still know that they can count on that consumer coming to their store. And so when that happens, there's sort of an economic apathy that happens and says listen, I don't have to even make an investment of time, energy, of brick-and-mortar and go into a community, that community has to come to me because they have no other choice. And so it puts them in a position of no competition and also knowing that those consumers are going to come to their store.

The one thing that happens now is that consumers realize that if a store takes the chance and the risk that we've taken to come into the neighborhood - oh, we woke our competitors up. Our competitors have all of a sudden come to the store. You know, at one point there was one grocer who came there and said, this may be some trifle for Wendell Pierce, but I'm a grocer who's been at the game for 30 years and who is he to open a store? All of a sudden he had competition that he didn't have before, because he knew those consumers, as underserved as they were, they still had that pent-up demand and that they would travel to the his store. Now we're giving them the alternative, like you and I have, just walk out our door and go to our neighborhood grocery destination, and then he now has to compete.

MARTIN: What I was going to ask is; what was the key to getting this done? Was it your participation? I mean was it the fact that there are people like you with a track record? I mean you have a track record now, having worked in housing development and redeveloping the neighborhood. Do you think it was you? What do you think was the key to overcoming the resistance?

PIERCE: I think there's a combination of advocacy from people in the neighborhood who said please come and help us bring the industries and the stores that we want in our neighborhood - especially a grocery store. It's just my personal advocacy and belief that New Orleans is too great of a city and these communities are too great of a neighborhoods not to have all the services that I take for granted when I come to New York and when I, you know, go to California and all the services that I had. It's the memory of that Friday night grocery trip that I used to take with my mother. It was the town square, you know, men and women getting off of work and you would see them at our neighborhood grocery store. For, you know, a little eight-year-old boy that was, you know, the fishmonger in the butcher, these were, you know, common people in my life on the beginning of my weekend, and I felt as though that was something culturally that everybody should have in their neighborhood to see that it goes away.

MARTIN: I'm laughing because this is really where I find things out, at the grocery store on Friday nights.

(LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: It really is.

MARTIN: This is where I find out what needs to happen on what's going on in the neighborhood.

PIERCE: I'm telling you.

MARTIN: That's where it all is.

(LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: And so just seeing that - and then also just convincing people that it's actually a viable business plan and model. And I think putting all of that on the table and whatever celebrity I brought to it helped to define the issue and bring some light to the issue.

MARTIN: So your first full-service store has been open for a few weeks now. How has the neighborhood responded? How is it going?

PIERCE: Oh, the neighborhood has responded wonderfully. They're so happy to have a decent, clean store, quality product, you know, world-class customer service, but more importantly, affordable.

MARTIN: Well, keep us posted.

PIERCE: I will.

MARTIN: What's your favorite aisle?

PIERCE: My favorite aisle is aisle number one, the produce. Fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, something I need to eat more of and we all should eat more of.

(LAUGHTER)

PIERCE: And just bringing a decent grocery store to the neighborhood is something that I'm proudest of.

MARTIN: If I pop in and see you in the bakery aisle, I'm going to talk about you.

PIERCE: I'll be greeting you at the front door.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. Wendell Pierce is an actor and now grocer, investor in Sterling Express and Sterling Farms, that is a chain of convenience stores and full-service grocery stores is now serving New Orleans. And he was kind enough to join us from NPR studios in New York City where we caught up with him.

Wendell Pierce, thank you for speaking with us.

PIERCE: Thank you. Have a great day.

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