Joe Vs Smart Shop: An Oasis in a Food Desert

The term "food desert" has been increasingly visible lately, thanks to reports from The Food Trust and the University of Houston's Community Design Resource Center. A food desert is simply a populated area -- whether it be rural or urban -- that lacks access to fresh, affordable food. A lack of supermarkets and a lack of transportation in poorer urban areas tend to cause the food desert problem that Houston in particular contends with. And supermarkets generally aren't rushing to build stores and invest in low-income areas; grocery stores want big tickets at checkout, and that generally doesn't happen in poverty-stricken areas.

Last year, Acres Homes was one of the communities singled out by the Community Design Resource Center's map of food deserts in Houston. Along with other neighborhoods such as South Park, Kashmere Gardens and parts of Alief, Acres Homes was easily one of the most visible food deserts -- and in desperate need of an affordable supermarket for its residents.

Joe V's Smart Shop is about to fill that need, opening a new store at 612 North Victory and Shepherd. The Acres Homes store will be its fourth in Houston, with the third already under construction at Highway 290 and West 43rd. The two existing Joe Vs Smart Shops at 12035 Antoine and 5609 Uvalde have already seen a tremendous volume of shoppers, both also being located in traditionally underserved areas (although not as markedly underserved as Acres Homes). Why have they been so successful?

It's not just the stores' locations. It's also price, plain and simple. There isn't a surfeit of choices at Joe V's -- just the brands, produce and meat that the store was able to obtain for a bargain price. It's a no frills, streamlined shopping experience that means customers are still getting their staples -- even if it's not always their preferred brand -- at far less than they'd pay at traditional supermarkets.

Joe V's is owned by H-E-B, meaning that it also sells H-E-B's store brand -- Hill Country Fare -- in addition to the brand-name deals that it features in weekly flyers. Among this week's specials are deals such as three cans of Hill Country Fare vegetables for $1, eight Valencia oranges for $1, eight bakery-fresh bolillos for $1 and split chicken breasts for $1 a pound. Joe V's deals in bargains, for better or worse.

But as with anything involving business, Joe V's moves into these low-income areas hasn't come solely out of the kindness of H-E-B's heart. It's a wickedly smart move to capture still more of the market share in Houston, where H-E-B has already been successful with other concepts: the first Mi Tienda store that opened in 2006, the wildly popular Central Market that opened here in 2001. It's sometimes difficult to believe that H-E-Bs didn't even exist in Houston a decade ago.

And at a time when Walmart has a 23 percent market share -- by far the largest in Houston -- Texas-based H-E-B seems determined to topple the Arkansas company from its throne. It's not impossible. After all, H-E-B currently has a whopping 50 percent market share in San Antonio and an even more astounding 60 percent share in Austin. For comparison, the largest market share that one grocery chain ever held in Houston was during Randall's heyday -- and that was only 29 percent.

Regardless of its rationale for further saturating Houston with grocery stores, the Joe Vs Smart Shops are certainly welcome, and not just because of the oasis they're creating in a long-dry food desert. As the Chronicle reported earlier this year, Houston lags far behind the rest of the nation when it comes to building supermarkets to keep up with its population. The national average across the United States is one supermarket for every 8,600 people. In Houston, it's one for every 12,000.

The problem isn't going to be solved just by building still more grocery stores in over-saturated areas like Montrose or River Oaks. It's going to take grocery stores taking a risk on what The Food Trust calls "low income, low sales" areas -- areas like Acres Homes.

The Joe Vs Smart Shop in Acres Homes will open this November.

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