When DMG Foods opened in March of last year, it appeared that the Salvation Army was taking a big risk in an unknown field. In such a competitive industry, how would DMG Foods survive where many non-profit grocery stores had failed? The answer is in the name: DMG stands for “Doing the Most Good,” the driving motto behind the Salvation Army.
DMG in Baltimore
The store’s location in a Baltimore, MD food desert is no coincidence, though instead of taking advantage of a lack of competition, Maj. Gene Hogg had a different plan. In an interview with the New York Times, he stated that the idea came down to him after three days of prayer. “God said I needed to open a grocery store,” he said, and so he set out to make it a reality. What spurred this decision was his previous experience caring for the food needs of the neighborhood.
During the 2015 riots in Baltimore, many stores and businesses were destroyed beyond repair. Major Hogg and his team of Salvation Army volunteers distributed food to people in need. Of the 200 businesses that were gone, a large portion were food stores, further limiting an already struggling community in their grocery options.
However, DMG Foods is a much more stable operation than its roots imply. The store has all the sections that a traditional grocery store does, including produce, a deli counter, a butcher shop, and a bakery. The prices, as noted by analysts, are lower than even the price-cutting supermarkets in Maryland. Because many of the store’s customers use their food-assistance dollars at the store, DMG Foods strives to give them as much value as possible. As a nonprofit, it is less concerned with margins and more concerned with the wellbeing of the neighborhood. Any profit made goes to the larger Salvation Army organization, where it is then used for charitable services like recovery centers, hospitals, and housing programs. The Baltimore store gives priority to Catherine’s Cottage, a home for people rescued from human trafficking that is based in Maryland. DMG Foods is also partnered with local Baltimore organizations, including food banks that provide prepared meals for the store.
The success of this grocery store can be attributed to the reputation of its parent organization. The Salvation Army is a far-reaching name, and has existed for over a hundred years. Providing quality groceries to a community in need falls directly in its vision of “Doing the Most Good,” and this is evident in every corner of the store. Customers using SNAP (formerly food stamps) and WIC (a food program for women, infants, and children) are incentivized to shop at the store with changing promotions. For example, DMG Foods in its first few months offered a 10-pound bag of frozen chicken for customers using their SNAP benefits.
Competitive Price, Welcoming Store
One price comparison done by WYPR, the local public radio station in Baltimore, shopped 14 essential grocery items at three local stores. These items included canned tuna, potatoes, and olive oil, among other kitchen staples. The result was that DMG Foods came out to be much lower than other stores in the area:
“In the end, the total at DMG Foods came out to $38.04, about two dollars cheaper than Giant and $12 cheaper than Safeway.”
The reporter who conducted this price comparison, Dominique Maria Bonessi, also interviewed various shoppers that were in the store to get their perspective on the nonprofit’s groceries. One shopper’s words reinforce the store’s mission to make a difference:
Sean Brooks, a customer interviewed by WYPR
“Yeah. I think now people got more choices,” says Brooks. “So if they see this right next to the MacDonald’s, a lot of people instead of going to get those Happy Meals and those nuggets, they be coming over here to grab chicken.”
Education and Development
For this Baltimore neighborhood, DMG Foods is providing a stable food supply and education to use it effectively. By partnering with the Maryland Food Bank, DMG Foods is able to offer ready-to-eat meals as well as instructional cooking classes. These classes are geared towards healthy eating, with a larger focus on nutrition over cooking skills.
One added benefit of having a nonprofit grocery store in the neighborhood is that it also provides jobs and training for the community. DMG Foods has established a program that mimics that of the Salvation Army thrift stores, wherein job seekers can work to build up the skill set needed to succeed in a larger grocery store.
Providing for a Community
There are separate loyalty programs for regular shoppers and those on food assistance programs, but the cards look identical. The store recognized that food stamps carry a strong stigma, especially in larger cities like Baltimore, and set out to make every shopper feel welcome while grocery shopping. In an interview with NPR, Maj. Gene Hogg explained the store’s mission more clearly:
“Our business is not really selling food,” he says. “What we’re in the business of doing is helping and loving people. And the qualifications to shop here is to walk in the door.”Major Gene Hogg, Central Maryland Commander for the Salvation Army
DMG Foods is open to the public, but most of its customer base is from the surrounding neighborhood. Many residents would previously have to travel a fair distance to buy groceries or settle for corner stores with limited produce. The Salvation Army-branded grocery store has become a community hub in many ways, making it easier for local residents to access healthy food at reasonable prices.
The Future of Nonprofit Grocery
Though the Salvation Army intended DMG Foods to start a larger chain serving food deserts in America, it is currently limited to its single store in Baltimore. The store recently celebrated its anniversary, which may lead the Salvation Army to start expanding to other areas.
In the meantime, chains like Lidl are opening more locations and increasing access to fresh foods. The retailer recently announced that it will build 7 new stores in Maryland, including 2 stores in Baltimore County. Their recent partnership with Boxed.com, which delivers bulk items and now fresh produce, may be the key to healthier eating for many Maryland residents.
DMG Foods operates out of a 7,000-square-foot space, but its influence reaches much farther than the store. While cooperatives have cemented the nonprofit grocery model throughout the U.S., DMG Food’s mission goes beyond sustainability and community. “Doing the Most Good” is an exciting new direction for food stores.
For more information on how grocery stores are setting themselves apart from the competition, you can read our list of America’s most unique supermarkets here. We also visited another retailer to see how they are caring for their customers–through in-store medical clinics. Read our store review here.