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The Boxcar Grocer: Sustainable Corner Market

It’s a small store—but there, the resemblance between a Boxcar Grocer and an average convenience store ends. Inside this high-concept boutique, you will find local, sustainably grown produce, organic dairy, grains, and even beauty products, as well as locally produced artisan items. It has created quite a sensation; in Atlanta, residents drive for miles to peruse it for truly healthy food. But for sister-brother owners Alison and Alphonzo Cross, it represents much more: it is a brand that could spread far and wide, crossing any economic boundary.

Getting Back to the Land

Prior to The Boxcar Grocer, Alison and Alphonzo were living very different urban lives in San Francisco. Alphonzo, who had a master’s degree in film and video, had spent 13 years in advertising, fashion retail, and nightclub management. Alison had a degree in architecture, had also studied film and video, and had worked with such esteemed companies as renowned advertising agency TBWAChiatDay.

They had a deep familial connection to Georgia, however. For generations their family had owned 165 acres of land there—land that, although they didn’t live on it, Alison and Alphonzo loved to visit and treasure. “My generation was the first generation that did not live there, but that’s where we always went for family reunions and just get-togethers,” Alison Cross related to Calmful Living. “It was beautiful land—had a stream running through it; I mean, it was gorgeous. When I was a kid, my grandparents had horses and chickens and grew their food there.”

In 2008, a distant relative—against the wishes of Alison, Alphonzo and other family members—forced the sale of the land. For the two siblings it was a tremendous loss, and it went a long way toward inspiring the creation of The Boxcar Grocer. “We really wanted that connection to the land to be reestablished,” said Alison. “We wanted Boxcar Grocer to be known as working with local farmers, known as valuing the land, what the land can produce, how it can keep us healthy, what it means to be healthy and connected to the land.”

The Need for Healthy Food

But another inspiration for The Boxcar Grocer was more practical. When Alison and Alphonzo made their visits to Atlanta, they could find no food to match up to their home turf in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Every time we’d come, it was such a chore to find healthy food here,” Alison continued. “In the Bay Area it’s just so abundant—it’s very easy to eat healthy. You've got vegetarian restaurants; you’ve got vegan restaurants; you have access to all kinds of good food.

“So for us it was a real eye-opener to come down here and see the health issues that our family members and many others were having around nutrition, as well as many nutrition-related diseases like diabetes. If they were getting older, there was also hypertension and a lot of preventable stuff.”

Do It Yourself

Alison and Alphonzo thought that they couldn’t be the only ones searching for great food in the area. They arrived at a solution: open a local store in a building their family already owned. The property was there, so the next step would be simply to find someone to set up a store and run it.

It turned out to be a bigger challenge than that. “We kept asking our property management company to put out feelers,” Alison said. “They let people know, ‘We need a store here. Is there anyone?’ We couldn’t find anybody who wanted to establish a store in the neighborhood, not one person.

“So we thought, ‘You know what? We’re just going to do it ourselves.’ We were a little bit naïve,” Alison laughed. ‘Alfonzo and I thought we’d open the store, leave someone else to manage it, and go back to our lives in California.”

They discovered what many do—if you want something done right, do it yourself. So they stayed, opening the first Boxcar Grocer in October 2011. And there they have been ever since.

Crucial Step of Branding

They decided that if they were going to undertake such a venture, they would bring their considerable combined education to bear and make it really worthwhile.

“We started off with the branding aspect of it,” Alison explained. “My brother and I both have backgrounds in advertising, so we looked at it as a design problem. In approaching it as a design problem—not as a philanthropy or charity problem—we looked for things that would spur other businesses like this to open up. One major factor was that it be a for-profit enterprise, because it needed to be a sustainable business that would entice other people to open this instead of a traditional convenience store with products that would stay on the shelf for years.

“Then we addressed how to construct a brand around food that has never been seen before, a brand that would be able to move fluidly within a number of communities and resonate with everyone—all types of income levels and communities. Something that black people would say, ‘This is about me,’ as much as a white person would say, ‘Oh, this is about me too,’ and as much as the Latino person could say it also. We came up with the idea of the train, because the train connects people. Throughout the country it connected people to food, which was brought into the city by train. It also connects us back to the sort of rural idea of going home to family.

“So that was the starting point. Once we got that and came up with the name Boxcar Grocer, we envisioned these small little stores that could be on every corner. We thought, ‘Boxcar—yeah, train; it travels and it really is about people connecting to health, which is the final destination.’

“We are building a brand that is strong enough to resonate in any community. It’s similar to McDonald’s in that they can build a McDonald’s in Paris that looks gorgeous and beautiful, but McDonald’s can also be in West Oakland. The caliber of the store might not be the same, but it’s still the same brand—the brand is fluid among communities. Ultimately we will be able to go into any community, regardless of income level, and the store will resonate and the local products will reflect what the demographics of that area desire.”

For Alison and Alphonzo that train is now roaring down the track, as they aim to open their second and subsequent stores. “When we look around at the communities that we want to grow into, there’s either nothing there at all or there’s just a store that says ‘Food Mart’ and nothing else—or it’s the gas station. We have to show that there is a demand for this type of food, that there is money in these communities where these kinds of stores haven’t been for many years. There is a density of population in those communities who want and deserve healthy food, nutritious food.”

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