Phillip Gipson’s family has been in the grocery store business since 1956, and he knows how important it is for people in his community to have access to healthy foods.
“Around here [West Dallas] the need is dire,” Gipson says. “When people can’t afford or access healthy food the ripple effect is serious … people’s health, their lives are in jeopardy.”
However, despite the community need, Gipson, 70, says keeping a grocery store afloat in a working-class neighborhood is not easy. Several years ago, after his uncle’s death, Gipson had to close his family’s store and restructure to be financially sustainable.
He quickly learned that the business model his father and uncle designed 65 years ago that focused only on selling food was no longer sustainable.
Nick Benavidez, who worked as a director of operations for Kroger in Dallas and neighboring cities for more than 20 years, agrees.
“There’s no profit in just selling groceries unless you’re selling in a high-income community,” Benavidez says. “The nature of the grocery business is to incur losses from non-perishables that go bad, dry goods that expire, and even theft. The most successful grocery businesses will be ones that offer services or goods that can offset the cost of those losses.”
So, that’s what Gipson decided to do. He and his wife Jonnie, 69, took ownership of the store in 2016 and moved their insurance business into the same building.
The couple used their 401k retirement plans to remodel their 2,000-square-foot grocery store and officially reopened in 2019, selling groceries along with auto, health and life insurance — all under one roof.
Grocery store customers receive free insurance consultations, Gipson says. He is an independent insurance adjuster, and says he is able to help customers resolve claims issues.
“This is a one-stop shop for our customers,” Gipson says. “I believe that’s the key to our success.”
Gipson didn’t provide financial details for his insurance business, but says it supports their ability to sell fresh produce in their store for affordable prices. Jonnie Gipson is the store’s shopper and brings in new items every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
“I rotate buying food from about 25 different stores,” Jonnie Gipson says. “We get the majority of our food from places like Costco, Sam’s and Texas Warehouse. We make sure to price our food as low as we can because we know that this is a low-income neighborhood and that our calling is not just to sell but to help.”
Their prices are similar to convenience stores. A loaf of white bread costs $3.29, a gallon of whole milk costs $3.99, and a 2-pack of tomatoes costs $1.99. Customers can buy individual sleeves of crackers for 99 cents each.
Gipson says the store needs to make a profit to stay operational, but their deeper understanding of the community they serve keeps their customers coming back. Though she sometimes has groceries delivered from vendors like Frito Lay, Jonnie says she prefers doing the shopping herself — primarily because she knows what her customers like, and she’s dedicated to getting it for them.
“There are certain things that the demographics of this area like,” Jonnie Gipson says, “that [some stores] do not carry.”
That’s the case with Cross Hampton resident, Eulonda Cooper, who visits Gipson Grocery once a week to pick up old-fashioned summer sausage and cheese from their deli. She says she visited the store daily when she was young.
“I’m just glad they’re back for the neighborhood,” Cooper says. “[They’re] convenient for those without cars.”
In the last year, Gipson’s added a sandwich shop to their grocery store as well as a patio for customers.
“The area is gentrifying, and we wanted to be a part of that,” Gipson explains. They also added a delivery service for sandwiches and groceries.
Gipson Groceries stands at a corner lot in the Homestead neighborhood of West Dallas and serves about 50 customers each week, Gipson says. Sonya Curry lives just a few feet away.
“I love this place; I come here all the time,” Curry says. “I don’t feel like I’m in a food desert … this place has everything I need.”
Curry is one of many customers, Gipson says, who benefits from wraparound services at Gipson Groceries by purchasing both food and insurance in the building, but also receiving help from Gipsons’ nonprofit organization, Southside Economic and Community Development Corporation, housed on the second floor of Gipson Groceries.
Gipson opened his nonprofit organization in 2005 with the help of his church, Smith Chapel African Methodist Episcopal, to continue his father’s legacy of giving back to the community.
“We are not in this business to just make a living,” Gipson says. “We want to give back to the community and to strengthen it just like my father and uncle did.”
Southside Economic and Community Development Corporation hosts monthly food drives, annual toy drives, and regular expert-led health seminars and job training, all free of charge, Gipson says. A community refrigerator sits on the patio for people to come by and get milk, eggs, juice and veggies for free.
Tonya Sweezer, a local physician, has used the second floor for seminars that focus on the importance of stress management and proper nutrition.
“I’m grateful to be a part of Phillip’s mission in strengthening the community from the inside out,” Sweezer said. “It’s true that our communities in West Dallas are part of a food desert, but it’s also true that the problem isn’t just about food.”
“When we work on strengthening community members’ quality of life through ensuring they have proper job training, equal employment opportunities, quality healthcare, affordable child care and access to educational opportunities as well,” Sweezer says. ”Access to quality and nutritious foods will naturally follow; my hope is that the community will demand it.”
Gipson hopes this multi-tiered approach will help him expand his grocery store business to South Dallas, Oak Cliff and West Dallas, where he is currently looking for sites.
Additional reporting by Nazarene Harris and Shardae White