Some people run to their local convenience store for a morning coffee and doughnut; others make a late-night trip for Cheetos and a six-pack or an emergency stop for toilet paper. But at Clover Grocery, a corner market in Manhattan’s West Village that opened last September and has been referred to as everything from a “wellness bodega” to “an uber-chic twist on the urban deli,” the average purchase might include sweet-potato hummus, “vegan-friendly” condoms, or osetra caviar.
It’s the city’s “most obnoxious food market,” according to the New York Post, which pointed out products for sale like $6 single-serving bags of chips and the aforementioned condoms, which cost $18. Also on the shelves are marine collagen (which is made of fish and purports to make skin look more youthful and reduce inflammation) and something called Stamba Powder, an “adaptogenic superfood powder blend” that allegedly boosts sexual vitality and costs $89.
Indeed, Clover Grocery seems like the kind of shop Gwyneth Paltrow and her fellow Goop devotees might wander into to browse after an ashtanga yoga class, perhaps whilst concealing jade eggs in their vaginas. And though this particular store clearly caters to a very specific demographic of wealthy wellness enthusiasts, reinventions of the typical corner market specializing in organic snacks, craft coffee and kombucha, locally made prepared foods, and yes, health and “wellness” products, are increasingly popping up in major metropolises across the U.S.
Open since late September on Manhattan’s Bleecker Street, Bonberi self-identifies as a “plant-based bodega” but has also been referred to as a “wellness concept store.” The airy, light-filled West Village space sells everything from aluminum-free deodorant to all-natural sprinkles; refrigerators are stocked with fresh juices bearing names like “Drink the Sun” and prepared foods like quinoa bibimbap bowls.
An early example of these health- and wellness-focused markets that helped give way to stores like Bonberi and Clover Grocery is Moon Juice, the LA-based phenomenon that seemingly invites equal amounts of adoration and eye-rolling: Its pricey powders and potions claim to do everything from boost sexual performance to improve brain function. Moon Juice opened its first store in Venice six years ago and now has a handful of locations hawking everything from pricey skincare to activated turmeric pepitas and fresh juices.
But NYC and LA aren’t the only cities where these kind of Goop-y mini markets are popping up, though thankfully not all of them carry $90 sex powders. Beloved salad chain Sweetgreen just transformed its very first location, which opened back in 2007 in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood, into a fancy grocery boutique. Called the Tavern, the market carries locally made food and beverage items like pickles, kombucha, honey, frozen yogurt, and produce, as well as a handful of products utilized in Sweetgreen restaurants, such as local cheeses and tahini. (Despite the name, the shop does not carry beer or wine — and while customers cannot order Sweetgreen salads at the Tavern, the boutique grocery will also serve as a pickup location for online orders.)
“We asked ourselves… what does Georgetown need?” Sweetgreen co-founder Nicolas Jammet says. “I lived there for eight years and remember very much that there’s just nowhere to get quality ingredients every day of the week.” Jammet views the Tavern, which Sweetgreen calls a “full-time indoor farmers market,” as a way for the brand to work with suppliers that might not be able to produce on a large enough scale for its restaurants. The products it stocks are right in line with the company’s aspirational lifestyle brand, which it’s built over the past 11 years with a (now-defunct) music festival and a crew of “community ambassadors.” Jammet says it’s very much an experiment, with no plans for expansion just yet
Meanwhile, WeWork just launched in-house convenience stores called WeMRKTs; besides a couple missing vowels, the shops aim to carry products made by people and companies that utilize the company’s co-working spaces, from snacks, drinks, and prepared foods to office supplies and health and wellness products. The co-working giant says it intends to open 500 WeMRKTs in cities across the U.S. in the next couple of years.
Concepts like these are sometimes called “bougie bodegas” in the media, and while appealingly alliterative, that phrase is also oxymoronic: Bodegas are for everyone, the kind of low-key corner stores found in every neighborhood, where blue-collar workers and Wall Street bros alike can rub shoulders whilst acquiring their morning bacon-egg-and-cheese or on a late-night emergency run for Twinkies and a box of Kraft mac and cheese. (That’s precisely why the ill-conceived startup Bodega, a line of “high-tech” vending machines intended to make corner stores obsolete, struck such a nerve; it has since changed its name to Stockwell.) These fancy mini-markets, on the other hand, sell the kind of items that only a very particular subset of the population likely sees a need for, let alone can afford.
But not all of these types of stores are quite so aspirational, with prices to match: The Goods Mart in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood bills itself as a “socially conscious alternative to the modern convenience store,” and much of its pricing isn’t wildly out of line with what’s stocked at a 7-Eleven or mini-mart. Natural alternatives to popular candies like Starbursts and Kit-Kats clock in around two bucks, while burritos from local restaurant Burritos La Palma are $4; a four-pack of Seventh Generation toilet paper costs $5.95.
“Natural food always costs a little more because of the quality of the ingredients, but for us, we don’t want any food items in our store over $20,” owner Rachel Krupa says. “So [the key is] finding the cool partners that have great products [with more accessible pricing]. Like our cups of La Colombe drip coffee for $1.25 — sure, it’s not single-origin, but … our goal is having a better-for-you convenience store and we want people to actually be able to afford it.”
Everything at the Goods Mart is non-GMO, and there’s a focus on reducing use of plastics: All single-serve beverages come in Tetra-pak, aluminum, glass, or paper cups. Krupa says she wants to open 50 locations in the next five years, rattling off a list of cities that includes Detroit, Oklahoma City, and Nashville.
But while places like the Goods Mart may intend a certain level of egalitarianism, all these types of gussied-up convenience stores — whether they carry $6 toilet paper or $100 tins of caviar — are inextricably linked to gentrification. It’s no coincidence that these types of stores are opening in cities where rent prices are on the rise, with their target market being the type of consumer that cares about purchasing allegedly healthier snacks and so-called wellness products — and has enough disposable income to support those desires.
The emerging generation’s taste for health and wellness products also has a lot to do with it: Studies have shown that millennials and members of Generation Z in particular are prepared to pay premium prices for food they perceive as healthy, including GMO-free, organic, sustainable, and gluten-free items. (Emphasis on perceive: Many food companies are guilty of greenwashing, or making foods appear to be healthier or more “natural” than they actually are. Similarly, many small food startups get acquired by big corporations, meaning shoppers who think they’re buying from an indie company are actually handing their money over to the huge conglomerates they may actively be trying to avoid.)
As the neighborhoods served by corner stores gentrify and more young professionals move in, it makes sense that the markets themselves will change to suit the tastes of their residents — whether that simply means a 7-Eleven that ramps up its product selection with organic cold-pressed juices, or the opening of a new mini-mart carrying locally made doughnuts and fair-trade coffee.
The move toward corner stores carrying healthier food certainly isn’t unwelcome, and it’s also been many years in the making. Back in 2005, the NYC Department of Health launched the Healthy Bodegas Initiative, aimed at getting bodega owners to stock items like multigrain bread, low-fat milk, and fresh produce. Eight-dollar bottles of kombucha and house-made quinoa tagliatelle probably aren’t quite what the DOH had in mind.
But whether you call them bougie bodegas, fancy convenience stores, or just another example of the Instagram-fueled wellness craze that propels people to buy $150 yoga pants and water bottles with crystals in them, it’s undeniable that there’s a growing market for these types of stores. Whether or not such stores will actually make any significant contribution toward healthier eating or lessening environmental impact remains to be seen — but for a certain customer, buying a $6 kombucha instead of a Pepsi or an organic Justin’s brand peanut butter cup instead of a Reese’s certainly makes them feel good.