Bodegas offer quick and cheap eats around the clock, making them a convenient amenity in the city that never sleeps. But some New Yorkers think this disposable lifestyle comes at an uncomfortably high price. Bodegas’ nonperishable items tend to be unhealthy and the food is packaged in single-use containers that ultimately go into a landfill.
Sarah Metz, 39, plans to make a move against this type of over-packaging by opening The Fillery, New York City’s first completely package-free grocery store. Metz aims to help people be more health-conscious in their food selection and environmentally conscious about its waste production.
“I want the store to be located somewhere it’s both accessible to people who need it and close to people who support this type of business,” Metz said. “It would further educate communities with less support.”
The shop will carry items in bulk like spices, nuts, rice and coffee as well as liquids like olive oil and dish soap. Customers can bring in reusable containers or purchase glass jars and compostable bags at the store – no plastic packaging.
From Concept to Creation
Similar to New York City’s recent decision to implement 5-cent fees on plastic bags, it took several years for Metz to move The Fillery beyond the conceptual stage and into a tangible enterprise. Unlike most other projects that use Kickstarter to raise their initial funds, Metz mainly used the crowdsource-funding website to build a community.
She raised $2,000 more than her $15,000 goal within a month of launching her campaign, but she’s had a primary investor for more than a year who contributed a third of the start-up costs.
Metz works as an occupational therapist for the New York City Department of Education at P.S. 333 Manhattan School for Children. The Fillery is Metz’s first business venture and is set to open this year, but the seeds for the store had been planted in her mind for nearly a decade.
Metz said she and her sister had driven their parents crazy with their efforts to recycle and eat healthier food. She grew up in Charleston, S.C., and had never seen a bulk natural-food store until she visited her twin sister, Stephanie, in Michigan.
“I’ve always been fairly adventurous and my family has always traveled – my parents were in the military so we moved all over the country before we got to Charleston,” Metz said. “When we first started looking at sites for clinical rotations, I wanted to go as far away as possible and go on an adventure, meet different people and visit different cities in the U.S. I remember being struck by the difference in grocery stores versus what we had available in Charleston.”
Metz volunteered in clinics in the Philippines and Southeast Asia and dreamed about opening her own bulk-food store, inspired by the open markets with barrels of spices, grains and dried fruits she saw while traveling through other continents. She discussed this dream so often with her friends that they encouraged her to join the Brooklyn Public Library’s PowerUP! Business Plan Competition in 2014.
The competition offered workshops on marketing, research and financial planning in addition to pairing contestants with a business counselor. Metz collaborated with the Business Outreach Center Network, a small business-development organization that provides business services to underserved entrepreneurs free of charge. She received guidance from Women’s Business Center Director Delia Awusi. As her counselor, Awusi worked with Metz to make a competitive plan.
“We grew together, Sarah was a dedicated client. You get people who are really passionate like Sarah, with such great enthusiasm and dedication,” Awusi said. “When you have someone who is really excited and passionate, you go out of your own way to do what you can.”
Awusi said the time leading up to the plan submission was “very emotional.”
“Writing a business plan was such a new process for me, as it has nothing to do with my educational background. Also, a lot of the plan is based on assumptions, which was difficult for me,” Metz said. “I wanted hard data to work from, but this type of store doesn’t really exist here, so I really had to get creative with my estimates.”
Sticking to the Plan
She got runner-up in this round of the competition, falling short of being a prizewinner. Awusi encouraged Metz to participate again in the competition the following year and won a second-place award of $5,000.
The second time around, Metz was accepted in the Women’s Business Mentoring Initiative, a partnership with the Business Outreach Center, the Atlantic Ave BID and Brooklyn YWCA. The program made Metz a mentee of Christine Whelan, owner of Sahadi’s, a Middle Eastern grocery store with barrels and bins of goods similar to what The Fillery plans to offer.
Sahadi’s has been on Atlantic Avenue since 1948 and Whalen, 49, grew up knowing the ins and outs of how the store was run.
“It wasn’t a reach for me to teach her about suppliers or stocking your inventory. We were able to tailor our dialogue from week to week on hiring practices, dots the i’s and cross the t’s in terms of government and health regulations,” Whelan said. “The food industry is a very small world. You’re either craft or your not, and if you’re not you tend to be part of a larger chain. She’s in a neighborhood that’s forward thinking about food, packaging and waste. Planning is really her second sense and I think she’s in a really good place to succeed.”
Metz said she doesn’t seek to be a direct competitor to other stores that sell food in bulk. She would like people to reconsider their lifestyles and be less wasteful. She add her business idea is sustainable – not only environmentally but also for her community, as she wants to hire and train locally, purchase locally and be a CSA pick up point.
“I noticed this with women entrepreneurs: Once we hear ‘no’ we go back into our shells,” said Awusi. “So I encouraged her to apply again because it gave her more time to research. She got second place. The Fillery is something I think Brooklyn is definitely ready for and Brooklyn would wholeheartedly embrace.”