Alumni Bring Grocery Store to Montbello Food Desert
Denver’s Montbello neighborhood — located north of I-70, just west of Peña Boulevard — is home to roughly 36,000 people, 9,000 households and one grocery store.
Residents who don’t want to trek to the Walmart Neighborhood Market on the eastern edge can try to find what they’re looking for at a Family Dollar or 7-Eleven. The choices are scarce enough to earn Montbello the title of “food desert”: where sources of fresh, affordable, healthy groceries have all but dried up and withered away.
But finally, in 2021, some rain is in the forecast.
When University of Denver alumni Khalid Morris (MS ’06, MBA ’07) and Daniel Craddock (MBA ’06) break ground on their new grocery store this spring, they will be taking a significant step toward improving the health and wellness of the local community.
“Food deserts are affecting people of all demographics, all ethnicities,” Craddock says. “Even if it doesn’t impact us directly, it creates a societal burden in terms of burden of cost, burden of disease, lost productivity. Employees’ sick days increase, which is a burden to companies.”
The Family Tree Food Market, scheduled to open on Albrook Drive near Peoria Street in 2022, is a way to ease that load. The grocery store — which will feature locally sourced products, an in-store dietitian and on-site cooking classes — is the anchor of Montbello’s FreshLo initiative. A walkable loop will connect the supermarket to community gardens, parks and schools. One hundred units of affordable rental housing will sit atop the retail space, which will also provide jobs that pay a living wage.
“We’re firm believers in empowering people through food and giving them a model that at least walks them down that line on how to do so,” Morris says. “We believe people will make better choices if they understand what the choices are.”
Addressing health disparities in urban areas is a goal Morris and Craddock have shared since they met at the Daniels College of Business 15 years ago. But it’s not the way they drew it up as students in the international MBA program.
“At the time, we just wanted to understand more about some business models that could potentially help,” Morris says. “We didn’t have a goal of food or a grocery store.”
Starting in the Five Points neighborhood, Morris and Craddock created surveys and went door-to-door, trying to figure out the root cause of the area’s health disparities. When the community told them a lack of affordable, healthy food was the root of the problem, the two business students listened.
At first, they tried to corral large retailers. The duo intercepted Whole Foods representatives who were speaking on campus and set up a meeting to discuss their solutions to a broken, expensive supply chain system. But they couldn’t convince the grocery giant to change its business model.
The next day, Morris realized, if he and Craddock wanted to increase the community’s choices, they would have to do it themselves. They’ve since realized that creating their own model from scratch allows Family Tree to function in ways traditional supermarkets can’t.
“Our whole thing is community health and individual health and that’s not normal for grocery stores,” Morris says. “They don’t care what you buy or if you walk out of there healthy. They just want to give you choices. We do care! We want to give you advice, we want to give you proper selection. We want you to make the right choices for yourself.”
When an opportunity opened to put the store in the Montbello neighborhood, Morris and Craddock inked a deal, using their DU connections to form partnerships with the Denver City Council and the Montbello Organizing Committee to make their longtime dream a reality. Already, the Daniels alumni have their eyes on a similar project in Pittsburgh and are open to exploring other locations.
Both Morris (a senior financial consultant) and Craddock (CEO of a Hawaii pediatric clinic) hold separate, full-time jobs, but they consider themselves social entrepreneurs — a term not even in their vocabulary until they enrolled at Daniels.
“We took philosophy at DU, an ethics course, and all of the students pretty much thought it was the craziest thing in the world,” Morris says. “[Now,] ‘regular’ business doesn’t interest me. If I’m going to do something in the entrepreneurial space, it’s going to be beneficial to not just me. That is a perspective that I didn’t have down before DU.”
Craddock agrees. “It all started at DU,” he says, recalling how he and Morris dedicated every assignment they could to food disparities. “DU provides a perfect opportunity for innovation on a budget of zero. Our professors were our free consultants. And their commitment and compassion to sharing their broad expertise was invaluable. They gave us the foundation for what we’ve developed today.”