Tropical Foods, located in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, has been around since 1974. It was founded by Pastor Medina, an immigrant from Cuba, who originally rented a small location and sold only plantains. At the time, plantains were not widely known in the U.S., but the Hispanic clientele who shopped there took to calling the store “El Platanero,” a name some customers still use. Tropical Foods has grown considerably since its days as a plantain shop; now owned by brothers Ronn and Randy Gary, children of Pastor Medina’s son-in-law who bought the store from him in 1988, the store employs 95 people and occupies 27,000 square feet of retail space. Tropical Foods is the sort of grocery store that neighborhoods aspire to have. At a time when the availability of healthy food products and improved wellness outcomes are of paramount importance in our inner cities, Tropical Foods exists to serve the people in the community and cater to their particular needs. Its customer reviews attest to its fresh products and affordable prices, solidifying the grocery store’s place as a pillar of the community.
Though Roxbury is not officially considered a food desert, the neighborhood still has several of the term’s characteristics, meaning that many residents have difficulty obtaining nutritious food due to availability, affordability, distance, or limited places to shop. We spoke to Ronn Gary about what it’s like to run an inner-city small business and a grocery store in such an environment. Ronn’s observations testify to the challenges these neighborhoods often face, yet he sheds light on the rewards and advantages business owners in the inner city can reap. His candid advice for business owners shows what it really takes to keep a successful business going for generations.
Be ready to work
Ronn’s biggest tip for budding entrepreneurs? “Be ready to work. Nights, weekends, days. The idea that business owners sit behind a desk is wrong, and as far from the truth as it can be.” Entrepreneurs need people skills, must be able to delegate, and have to be detail-oriented, qualities Ronn says are hard to pass on to others. This causes many business owners to end up doing a lot of work on their own for a long time, because it’s difficult to find someone to entrust with a business you created.
Operating in the inner city comes with its own set of challenges. At 5 p.m., the part of Roxbury where Tropical Foods sits often takes on a retail desert persona, with gates rolling down in front of businesses, allowing for little economic activity in the area. Ronn says that business districts need synergy to be successful, and that sharing customers is difficult when stores close at different times, although he has witnessed a steady change toward more sustained activity in Roxbury over the last decade.
Become part of the plan
The expansion of Tropical Foods to its current 27,000-square-foot size was also challenging. Ronn said it took more than five years of planning and meeting with the city to get approval for construction. Ronn believes that while the city spends a lot of time on economic development, they need to provide more help to assist existing businesses. He also echoed that while it’s nice to have resources available for cosmetic updates, it would be more helpful for the city to look at how businesses that are already in the city can expand. These issues are often compounded by inner city “pocketbook issues,” as well as working with a variety of cultures, using different languages, with their own separate needs and challenges. Ron says that in the beginning Tropical Foods was never looked at as a “real” supermarket, but their growth has spurred larger stores to start viewing them as competition.
Know the benefits
While all of this may sound daunting, it’s only because Ronn wants people to have a realistic idea of the work required to own a business. He says he’s extremely fortunate that so much of Tropical Foods was built up by his family before him. It’s easy to pick up on Ronn’s passion for his business and see that he cares deeply for the neighborhood it serves. Ronn likes working in the inner city, and names a number of benefits of operating there: a great density of people provides a lot of customers, public transportation brings more clients into your store, and there are often fewer competitors to worry about. The inner city also provides a large pool of employees that are able and willing to work hard and help you succeed.
When operating in the inner city, you cannot overstate the value of being seen as a part of the neighborhood and an asset to the community, and Ronn clearly knows the benefits he brings to the table. When talking about expansion, he speaks of the new jobs it would bring, and how he’s driven by the opportunity to meet his customers’ diverse needs.
Risk comes before reward
It’s his passion and the work he puts in every day for Tropical Foods that makes him so straightforward about what’s needed to run a business. The story of his success is told through the advice he gives, whether it’s to have a plan and make sure you stick with it, or to not always be willing to write the first check and instead look for partnerships to share the inherent risks of entrepreneurship. “I’m honest because there are other businesses that are trying,” Ronn said of wanting to help others succeed, a welcome attitude in an environment that offers great rewards, but not without risks and a lot of effort from entrepreneurs like himself and his family.
Tropical Foods is an example of how much an inner city business can grow when it has the right amount of resources, leadership, and community trust. Small businesses, especially those in the inner city, have many barriers to obtaining the resources they need. Perhaps the “El Platanero”, playfully written in tiny script under Tropical Foods’ iconic storefront sign, can serve as an eloquent reminder that success is attainable, and that others can follow in the footsteps of Pastor Medina and his family to grow a business that supports their own needs as well as the community they serve.
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