ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In Indianapolis, a medical device company is taking an innovative approach to its manufacturing. It's building a grocery store in the same neighborhood as its new manufacturing plant. Side Effects Public Media's Farah Yousry reports that the goal is to help attract and retain workers living in a food desert.
FARAH YOUSRY, BYLINE: What do fresh vegetables and medical devices have in common?
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YOUSRY: It's this area on the northeast side of Indianapolis where COOK Medical will make needles, catheters and a range of other medical devices used at hospitals all over the world. But this construction is for something different.
PETE YONKMAN: It was never part of our business plan to have a grocery store.
YOUSRY: That's Pete Yonkman, president of COOK Medical, a multibillion-dollar family-owned manufacturer based in Bloomington. His company's locating one of its manufacturing sites to Arlington Woods, an underserved Indianapolis area. It's planning to hire as many as a hundred local workers.
YONKMAN: And one of the things that we heard from so many people was that food access was a problem. They had five grocery stores leave in the last five years. And so you have 100,000 people with no access to groceries.
YOUSRY: So COOK Medical decided to spend nearly $2.5 million to build a 15,000 square foot grocery store. It will serve the community and maybe help retain employees. Terry Coleman has been living in this predominantly African American neighborhood for more than 34 years.
TERRY COLEMAN: When you need a gallon of milk, you got to travel five miles to go. With the new marketplaces coming, we're only about maybe five minutes from there. So it's really going to enhance the area, and we're really excited about it. That store is going to be a part of our community.
YOUSRY: And here's where the story takes another twist. COOK Medical will not run the store for long. Instead, it will turn it over to Michael McFarland and Marckus Williams, two young local entrepreneurs. The two men are in their early 30s and are childhood friends who live in this neighborhood. They've seen the challenge that food access poses, especially to elderly residents like McFarland's grandmother.
MICHAEL MCFARLAND: She's not able to get to a place that has adequate food supply. She's relying on family members right now. She's an independent lady, and, you know, sometimes she might want to go to the grocery store, but it's 10, 15 miles away.
YOUSRY: A few years ago, Williams and McFarland started a small convenience store at a nearby strip mall. After grocery stores closed here one by one, it became a lifeline for many residents. Soon, they will shut it down and start managing the new grocery store when it opens next year through a rent-to-own model.
MCFARLAND: So our projected sales, we should be able to pay it off in about two to four years. So that's not bad to own your own grocery store.
YOUSRY: Harvard Business School professor Kash Rangan says if it's done right, this can be a win-win for everyone.
KASH RANGAN: The positive aspect of this is you're solving a real problem.
YOUSRY: He sees the project as a unique partnership between a business and the community by responding to the community's specific needs. Even if they don't align with the company's core business, companies can drive change and help solve real social and economic problems.
RANGAN: This is a brilliant model where they're really been to (ph) the community, so they take the next step. It's a new model. It's a unique model, but they have to go the extra mile for it to be successful.
YOUSRY: Rangan says ongoing support from the company will be crucial if building a grocery store in the food desert will be something more than a corporate vanity project. Marckus Williams and Michael McFarland say they have a personal vested interest in both the community and the store and are bent on its success.
For NPR News, I'm Farah Yousry.
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