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Customers are helping run a new grocery store in Minneapolis, which is testing whether people power can make quality food more accessible to lower-income residents.

Good Grocer recently opened its gleaming new store — both inside and out — on a drab stretch of Lake Street between Kmart and Interstate 35W, replacing what was a fading furniture rental shop. The nonprofit business model is equally rare, offering a 25 percent discount to any customer who agrees to become a member and volunteer at the grocery for two-and-a-half hours a month.

The idea was born out of founder Kurt Vickman's experience running a nearby food shelf, which he worried was making people feel dependent on handouts and defined by their income. Customers offered to volunteer or pay some money, but the free groceries came from a food bank with stipulations that neither was allowed.

"Because people weren't able to contribute something, whether it's their time or money, I think it eroded people's dignity and … sense of self-motivation," said Vickman, who started the food shelf while serving as a pastor in a St. Louis Park church.

Volunteers at Good Grocer, which opened in June, sign up for monthly slots working as cashiers, baggers, stockers and cleaners. Some find tasks aligned with their specific professional skills, such as painting, window washing, remodeling or refrigerator repair, Vickman said. On Saturdays, kids can even be dropped off at the free on-site child care.

While the food shelf is now gone, Vickman said they learned through surveys that most of its users were still doing most of their shopping at more traditional grocery stores. By offering the discount-pricing model, he hopes they can reduce the need for free food to fill the gap.

Price tags throughout the store, which has an extensive produce section, list both member and nonmember prices. Vickman stressed that anyone can shop in the store and that full-price purchases help make the discounts possible. The model is also aided significantly by the volunteering, which slashes labor costs by about 75 percent — typically one of the largest expenses for a grocery store. Volunteers can also choose to forgo their discount, providing additional support.

The concept has attracted some high-profile supporters, including Supervalu, which took the rare step of distributing food to a single-store operation. "That was big and that allowed us the freedom to kind of innovate our model as it relates to our membership," Vickman said.

Though it is not a traditional co-op with members sharing part ownership, the Good Grocer model has similarities to the early, volunteer-focused co-op groceries, said Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association. "That sounds like a really unique model," said Pfuhl, who was unaware of a similar business operating in the Twin Cities.

The closest example might be Hampden Park Co-Op on Raymond Avenue in St. Paul, which still offers members discounts of 12 to 23 percent if they work at the store for three to 12 hours a month. "It's been discontinued at every other co-op except ours" in the Twin Cities, said Kathy Vaughan, the store's assistant general manager.

The Wedge Community Co-op recently began offering special memberships and discounts to people who are enrolled in public assistance programs.

Vickman sees problems with that approach, however.

"This is the dilemma, right?" Vickman said. "If I say, 'If you're low income, now you can have access to this discounted stuff.' And the entire system is based off of that. Then tell me: Why would you ever want to be middle income? You'll lose everything."

Wedge CEO Josh Resnik responded that he estimates nearly all people living in poverty, if polled, would say they are eager to raise their incomes. "To suggest that people would want to stay low income because they can get either government assistance programs or a discount at the grocery store seems like a flawed argument to me," he said.

Good Grocer has about 375 members, and Vickman said a majority of their customers on recent days have been nonmembers. He estimates that it will take about two years for the store to start breaking even; donations from outside contributors help keep it afloat in the interim.

On a recent afternoon, member Rodrigo Toste was standing by the refrigerators checking expiration dates during his volunteer shift. "I've never seen anything like this before," Toste said.

Nearby, Amie Kromah was filling out a member application several days after her husband picked up some groceries there. "It makes sense," Kromah said.

Buzz appears to be building in the neighborhood. The Rev. Meta Carlson, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church at W. 33rd St. and Pillsbury Av. S., said that while the membership model invites many logistical challenges, it has extra benefits.

"They're … becoming really widely known in the neighborhood, because people are feeling like they have skin in the game and ownership and they're proud of it," Carlson said. "And they're telling their friends about it."

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

Twitter: @StribRoper