DMG Foods: A fresh approach to the urban grocery experience

By: Janeen Johnally and David Ibata

The inspiration to do something in Baltimore that The Salvation Army had never done before came to Major Gene A. Hogg in the middle of the night, some months after the Freddie Gray riots of 2015.

The Army had gone into poorer neighborhoods with personnel and emergency canteens to serve responders and peaceful demonstrators. They discovered a critical need most Americans take for granted: Ready access to healthful, affordable food.

An area might once have had a “bodega,” a small Mom and Pop store that sold food as a side item to cigarettes, lottery tickets and liquor. But many Baltimore bodegas closed in the civil disturbances that followed the police custody death of Gray.

“We were bringing in 150 bags of food a day to mitigate the food shortage problem,” said Major Hogg, Central Maryland area commander. “We were trying to figure out a better way to do food delivery. I told my staff I’d go to prayer and fasting.”

“One night, at 3 a.m., God woke me up and told me to open a grocery store,” the major said. “I woke my wife and told her. She just looked at me and said, ‘Go back to sleep.’”

Two years later, Major Hogg and the Central Maryland Command are about to open The Salvation Army’s very first grocery: DMG Foods. As in “Doing the Most Good” Foods. The store is at 400 E. 29th St. where the Harwood, Abel and Lower Waverly neighborhoods touch boundaries. The opening ceremony takes place at 11 a.m., March 7.

The $2.2 million project will provide fresh and affordable foods, including meat cut on site and fresh fruits and vegetables, to 1,200 families annually. It also will generate at least 15 jobs for the community.

DMG Foods is in a “food desert,” defined by Baltimore City as more than a quarter-mile from a supermarket. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes food deserts as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.” Nearly one-quarter of city residents live in such areas. Certain populations are disproportionately affected, the city says – about 31 percent of blacks, compared with 8.9 percent of whites, and 28 percent of all Baltimore City children.

“The food desert situation in America is growing worse every day,” Major Hogg said. “We have people all over the country, all over the world, calling us and asking us about our model, wanting to replicate it if it works.”

In the neighborhood DMG Foods will serve, fewer than one-third of residents have cars. The closest supermarket is a half-mile away. The closest food store most residents can afford, an Aldi’s, is a 2½-mile ride on a city bus. “People usually buy only 10 to 14 pounds of groceries at a time, because that’s what they can carry,” Major Hogg said.

DMG Foods, with 7,000 square feet, is believed to be the first grocery store in the nation to combine social service with a traditional grocery shopping experience. This distinctive business model will offer nutritional guidance, shopping education, and meal planning. Additionally, the program will offer a workforce development program, which will train over 50 retail employees per year in customer service skills. And DMG Foods customers will have access to over 8,000 recipes, which they can add to their online grocery lists, at www.dmgfoods.org.

The Salvation Army of Central Maryland worked with the Baltimore Development Corp., the Baltimore Food Initiative and the Maryland Food Bank to design the concept and program. It also worked with C&S Wholesale Grocers, which has experience supplying independent urban groceries.

“(C&S) selected a like-sized store with a like-sized demographic they already serviced and helped us put together a planogram, the items and their placement,” Major Hogg said.

DMG Foods will offer more than 15,000 SKU (stock keeping unit) items. For example, three cans of corn from Libby’s, Del Monte and Best Yet (a C&S private label) will count as three SKUs. That variety is important in cultivating a sense of dignity.

“People in poverty want the same things as middleclass individuals – convenience, community and security,” Major Hogg said. By offering a welcoming space with many choices, “we’re trying to create a shopping environment where economics shouldn’t be the sole driver of your experience.”

DMG Foods’ discount rates will be 5 percent lower than other Baltimore City grocers. The program is committed to offering exceptional values to customers through weekly ads and a loyalty program.

All customers are eligible to sign up for The Red Shield Club loyalty program, granting them access to in-house savings. Customers that self-identify as government assistance recipients, via online or kiosk registration, will receive a specific rewards card ID that will enable them to obtain complimentary food items, once a month. Also once a month, a random selection of up to 20 loyalty card holders will be invited to a private dining event, with a cooking demonstration by a local chef and hors d’oeuvres served by Maryland Food Bank culinary students.

Major Hogg likens DMG Foods to General William Booth’s decision to open a safety match factory in 19th century England, using non-toxic chemicals so workers – poor, unskilled folk being sickened at conventional match factories – could find gainful employment and not risk death doing so.

“The Salvation Army, with our history of food and food delivery and our thrift stores, has the ability to merge the two concepts and address the food desert situation around the country,” the major said. “The question is, can we make it work?”