Rumor has it: A conversation about Your Bargain Grocer with Mike Servello Sr., Compassion Coalition founder and CEO
Why is the food so cheap — is it all expired?
No, it’s not all expired. We’re buying in massive amounts and we do not mark it up as much as a traditional grocery store, so a lot of the fresh items — the fresh produce and grocery items — are all perfectly in date, but we just put a minimum mark-up. We do get some items that are close to expiration date, like for example the Clamshell salad mixes, so something that would typically be $4 per package in the store, we’ll sell for 50 cents or $1, but it should be used usually within three days. It’s in date or just right there, so people are saving a huge amount of money, same thing with yogurt. But the truth is, even producers will tell you, you need to know how to use food and properly sell it.
We are trying to eliminate food waste and help people eat healthy food for affordable prices. There’s a small amount of food that we must move quickly, but the vast majority is perfectly in date and fine and fresh. We’re making more and more connections with local farms, getting local produce, especially in the summer and fall.
Is all the food donated and you profit off it?
I wish! I wish, wouldn’t that be wonderful. No, we purchase the food. I don’t know where that idea came from that it was all donated, I think also someone said, ‘You get all free help and donated food.’ No, we are purchasing and we actually hire, these are all paid employees. We are actually trying to help people that would otherwise not be able to get work, with barriers to employment, and put them to work. So, the stuff is not free. Every now and again, we’ll get an excess load that they’ll give us for a donation, and we put that out there really, really cheap.
Who can shop at Your Bargain Grocer?
We want everybody to shop there. People are worried about coming in because they feel like they’re taking something from someone that needs it. Not true. The folks shopping help us to make additional revenue that pours into the Compassion Coalition side. There’s nothing like this that I’ve seen in America that operates totally self-sustaining that can continue to grow and meet the needs of a community. We don’t rely on any type of outside funding, we are totally self-sustaining. When there is excess, we’ll just do another project, we’ll do more.
We had excess, so we started the teacher resource center, Equipped to Teach, and we’ve given hundreds of thousands of dollars in school supplies for free, that’s all on people shopping in the store. Therefore, when you shop you’re going to get a great price and you’re going to help us accomplish the mission. Then you say, what about the people that really need it? They’re getting those low prices, plus through our connection with many different agencies, when they have someone that is in desperate need, they call us. We have a referral, it has to be a direct referral from those agency employees, we then will give them the food for free, so we’re meeting that need that way.
So where does my money go when I shop at Your Bargain Grocer?
The excess of the profit would spill over 100 percent into Compassion Coalition. It enables Compassion Coalition to donate, like we’re doing right now, $20 million a year in product. Anybody that comes in and sees it is amazed, how do you do it? That’s how we do it. It’s a simple, ingenious way to do it. So, I’d rather depend on ourselves to generate income than depend on government funding.
When you get government funding, it’s so specific. Let’s say, for example, they gave us a grant for school supplies, it can only be for pencils and paper. Let’s say the students needed notebooks, you can’t give them notebooks, it’s just ridiculous. We can get whatever we want. When we see kids without shoes or coats and we know the specific need, we talk to the schools, we can go out and buy the coats they need. We don’t have to ask anybody. We work with our partners, we take those funds and we go to work.
What does Compassion Coalition do?
Compassion Coalition is the reason why we exist. Compassion Coalition is here to meet the needs of the community. We started with food and it has evolved because you know we would see, for example, with the influx of all the refugees and the poverty — Utica has been plagued by poverty. You’d see kids walking to school with no coat, not having a lunch or a snack, not having enough school supplies. People that are sleeping on the floor, people in desperate need, so we said let’s meet those needs. So, when we see a need, a legitimate need, and the way it’s discerned is through our partners, we go to meet that need.
If someone calls from an agency that has a client in desperate need and says, ‘I need a bed,’ great, we’ll furnish your whole place, because we’ve got the money. We’ll do it, we don’t have to go through any grant funding, this or that. The bigger we get, like with the new store, we’ll start doing prepared meals. A lot of people don’t cook, especially seniors, and they can come and get the food they want. We’re not about making money, we’re about meeting a need, but you’ve got to make money to stay in business. It’s that delicate, delicate balance.