Vegan market hopes to open in Phoenix

A rendering of plans for the potential VegCo Market. (Courtesy of Taz Loomans)

A vegan grocery store may soon be the newest addition to downtown Phoenix shopping. VegCo Market is the brainchild of Heather Francois, who plans to have the grocery store up and running by spring 2013.

The market, which will be south of Central Avenue and McDowell Road, will sell entirely plant-based products and focus on locally grown produce.

“This is about real food and being committed to providing people with food that actually nourishes their body, is grown in a way that actually respects the earth and the environment and is also respectful of animals,” Francois said.

Francois, CEO and founder, plans to work with local farmers to provide customers with fresh and affordable food. By selling locally grown products, VegCo should be able to avoid the added cost of transportation, packaging and other fees that increase the cost of food. Selling produce from Arizona will also benefit the local community and the environment, she said.

“It’s about the overall focus on sustainable living,” Francois said. “Basically we’re looking at making sure that every aspect of the food chain from the seed in the ground to the plate on the table is something that is beneficial to everyone.”

Francois said she is not concerned about her business failing, despite the recent closure of the similar Urban Grocery Store and Wine Bar that was located in the Phoenix Public Market. The difference, Francois said, is that unlike the Urban Grocery Store, VegCo will offer quality food at an affordable price.

“A lot of these markets, the reason that they fail, is because they did not incorporate into their business plan an absolute need and dedication to affordable pricing and that is something that is one of my principle goals,” Francois said.

The affordable price, Francois said, will give VegCo an edge over conventional and organic grocery stores. At a traditional grocery store, organically grown food is often more expensive. But, by collaborating with local farmers, Francois said she will be able to sell organic food at conventionally grown prices.

Creative writing freshman Mallory Bolin said she believes students on the Downtown campus will shop at VegCo. As a pescatarian, Bolin said it’s difficult to find food that fits her diet, due to the few downtown grocery stores near Taylor Place.

“The only really close store is CVS or you have to go all the way to Target and that’s at the end of the (lightrail) line, which is a far way to get groceries and the CVS store is also expensive,” Bolin said. “If people can get access to fruits and vegetables and healthy food that’s closer, I think a lot of people will take advantage of that.”

Ryan Blum is co-president of VegAware, a student organization that focuses on advocacy and creating a community for vegans and vegetarians at ASU. Blum agrees that the cheaper price of food will make VegCo attractive to customers. Blum, who currently shops at Sprouts Farmers Market, finds that he often splurges on organic food.

Finding funding is one thing that could prevent Francois’ market from becoming a reality. After severing ties with a local capital acquisition firm due to differences in opinions about business practices, Francois and her colleagues began raising “social money” through Indiegogo, an Internet funding platform.

Francois said that the website attracted investors including one that would like to open the first VegCo Market in Austin, Texas. Francois said that she believes Phoenix would support a business like VegCo.

To demonstrate support, VegCo is holding a Party in the Park(ing Lot) on Dec. 2 at noon in the proposed location for the market. A shout out of “Phoenix wants VegCo” will be filmed during the event and included in a promotional video for potential investors, Francois said. There will be cooking demos and entertainment including a raffle during the event for anyone who rides the light rail or bikes, Francois said.

Steve Carlson, an organizer for VEGphoenix Meetup group, a social organization for the Vegetarian Society of Phoenix, agrees that Phoenix could support a business that offers healthy food options like VegCo.

“The reason I think it’s a good idea is because of the relatively recent phenomenon of the demand for grocery stores with healthier options, particularly Whole Foods and Sprouts, has dramatically increased in the Phoenix metro,” said Carlson.

Based on Francois’ own research, there are around 100,000 vegans and vegetarians in the greater Phoenix metro area. Francois used the Vegetarian Resource Group’s estimate that approximately five percent of the population is vegan or vegetarian in the Phoenix population.

Unlike other organic markets that focus on local food, VegCo will not be a cooperative, which makes her business unique, Francois said. Although VegCo is unconventional, shoppers can expect to find almost all of the same products available at a traditional grocery store, Francois said.

Products such as meat, dairy, seafood, eggs and honey will be not be seen on VegCo shelves. Instead, plant-based meat alternatives will be available. Alternatives, such as plant-based dairy for ice cream, will also be sold at VegCo. Products with food coloring, partially hydrogenated oils and artificial colors or flavors will not be sold at the market, Francois said.

Although the grocery store caters to a vegan and vegetarian audience, anyone looking for healthier food options will find them at VegCo, Francois said.

“The nice thing about VegCo is that although it is designed to make living a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle much simpler and more cost effective and more fun, it isn’t exclusively for people who are vegan or vegetarian,” Francois said. “It’s to invite everybody who is interested in including more quality plant-based foods into their diet.”

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