Q&A With The Entrepreneurs Set To Operate A Food Desert Oasis

Two men in suit jackets
Business partners Michael McFarland (left) and Markus WIlliams (right).

Michael McFarland and Markus Williams have become local celebrities lately. Their names have been in countless headlines over the past few months since they announced their partnership with the multibillion-dollar Cook Medical company to build Indy Fresh Market on the northeast side. But this isn’t their first time opening a grocery in an underserved community, and they sat down with us to discuss the challenges and rewards of doing so. 

Last summer, you opened your first store—Wall Street Convenience on East 38th Street—in a food desert. How did you get into the grocery business?

Michael McFarland: I served in the military. In my last assignment, I was working with a chapel organizing community service and food drives. When I came home to Indy, my friend Markus reached out to me with the idea of a convenience store. It felt comfortable, bringing the skills I learned in the service to my neighborhood. We put some resources together, found a location, and we just built it up from there.

Markus Williams: When we started to look into it, we were going to do more of a convenience store, but we kept hearing “food desert, food desert.” I said, man, forget the convenience store, let’s stick to groceries. People needed it in that area. There’s nothing around there. We changed up the format a little bit to fit the community needs.

What did the startup process look like?

MM: The first obstacle was equipment—figuring out where we were gonna get it from, how much it was going to cost. We got most of our equipment at a fraction of the normal price by going to auctions, so that helped us out a little bit. The next step was putting products in the equipment. We just took it one day at a time, and you know, it worked out.  

How did you stay afloat when big grocery store chains couldn’t survive in that area?

MM: We used our strengths. Our small operation kept costs low and let us tailor our inventory to the community’s wants and needs. We had a direct connection with the neighborhood residents. Everything we sold was what the community told us they wanted, so that helped us move products.

In what ways have you seen food insecurity touch your community?

MM: There used to be a Kroger, a Safeway, some small mom and pop stores around here. Now it’s nothing for miles and miles, which is kind of mind boggling for a major city in the U.S. For a while, we had to drive 20-30 minutes to get a loaf of bread or go to a gas station and buy some old bread that you didn’t know when it was stocked.

MW: I have a vehicle, but I have family and neighbors who don’t. Sometimes, I’d take them to a grocery store, drop them off, and come pick them back up. Hopefully, this new store is going to really impact the community by making that unnecessary.

What does a grocery store add to a community?

MM: Every community should have access to fresh food. I don’t see any reason why our community can’t have that, too. We wanted to bring back the pride of being able to buy food around the corner. We wanted to restore that basic dignity.

How did you connect with Cook Medical about partnering for Indy Fresh Market, which will replace Wall Street Convenience as the area’s grocer?

MM: Before they came to us, they were looking at building a medical manufacturing facility in that area. They have an inclusion policy in the framework for the business, so rather than coming in and just plopping a factory in the middle of a neighborhood, they decided to incorporate the neighborhood into their business plan. After talking to community leaders, they found out about our first store and decided to partner with us.

Why did you decide to close Wall Street Convenience instead of operating out of both locations?

MM: We didn’t own the building and we were having problems with our landlord—leaking roof, no upgrades to the property. We didn’t want to continue that relationship.

Once the store is up and running, how collaborative will Cook Medical be in the management of it?

MM: We’re gonna be 100 percent in control of the store. I’m sure that we’ll take any insight that Cook has and incorporate it into our business plan. But for the most part, they’re letting us have complete control over the project.

In the months leading up to the grand opening, what does your work day look like?

MW: Training, training, training. We’re shadowing Safeway managers in different departments, just to get a feel for how things work. We’re trying to soak in everything that we can. Asking a lot of questions, trying to learn all the good and bad before it’s showtime.

What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned so far during your training?

MW: It’s so important to keep good employees.

MM: Yeah, employee retention is top priority. We have to make sure our employees want to come to work. We want to make it an enjoyable place for them. We don’t want any unhealthy situations or relationships.

Staffing this year has been hard for everyone. What plans have you made to combat that problem?

MW: We’re partnering with Martin University to create a training program specifically for the grocery industry. So we’ll be hiring our managers from that pool of people, which we hope helps.

Besides staffing issues, how has the pandemic impacted the progress on the store?

MM: The pandemic has impacted the project a lot. Finding supplies, materials, manpower, zoning, paperwork … it seems like everything in the world slowed down. But we’ll get there.

What makes it worth it for you?

MW: Seeing the smiles. When community members come into our old store, they’re so happy there’s food nearby. We aren’t the biggest store, but they know they can come get an apple and a loaf of bread right there. We build relationships with our customers.

MM: For me, I want to create a legacy. It keeps me going knowing that I’m doing something great for my city, my community, and my family.