Hank’s Mini Market has been on Florence Avenue in south Los Angeles since 1997, becoming a landmark of sorts in what’s a predominantly working-class Black and Latino part of town. ‘It was a tough neighbourhood,’ says 38-year-old Kelli Jackson, the current owner and Hank’s daughter. ‘There were a lot of not-so-good activities going on but my dad came in, cleaned up that corner and built relationships. People were coming in and letting him know about their families and where they were in life. So I would get stopped on the street and people wouldn’t ask me “How are you doing”, but “How’s Hank?”’
Hank’s bright-orange façade is impossible to miss; its retro-LA nostalgia often draws people in just out of curiosity, says Kelli. But it didn’t always look like that. In her dad’s time, it was a classic liquor store. After studying art and business at Dillard University and getting a masters at USC, she took over the corner shop around 2015 and considered how it could better address the needs of the neighbourhood. Kelli had grown up here, she knew everyone, and she wanted to give something back to the community.
‘That’s when the concept of food deserts was introduced to me,’ she says. ‘We’re an underserved community, there’s not enough access to healthy options, and there’s a proliferation of fast food.’ Almost 25% of adults in Los Angeles County are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that number is higher among low-income neighbourhoods; at around $41,000 per year, Hyde Park’s median household income is a third of that of the wealthy suburbs. With the aid of the LA Food Policy Council’s Neighbourhood Market Network, which helps independent businesses offer healthier food, Kelli developed a network of mainly local fresh-produce suppliers, transformed Hank’s inventory, learned more about nutrition and received business mentorship.
In 2018, she also teamed up with Sweetgreen, a restaurant chain running a health initiative similar to the council, focusing on low-income communities and what Kelli calls ‘ma-and-pa shops’; on top of offering her know-how, they also funded and designed Hank’s new look. The mini market continues to sell typical corner-shop goods – it’s not just full of expensive and exotic fruit: Kelli’s goal is to gently invite clients, new and old, to eat better. What’s more, she knew that any meaningful change required dialogue and a holistic approach, which is why she also runs a series of community events – like monthly food education workshops – from a dedicated space at the back of the shop.
It’s easy to levy charges of low ambition against a shop like Hank’s: to claim that social initiative only shrinks the bottom line, and focusing on your immediate community is too narrow. But Kelli believes that it’s synonymous with building a thriving business, and that being ignorant of your environment and its needs is tone-deaf, not to mention harmful. ‘We usually put all these separate labels [on things], but it’s all intertwined, it all intersects. The way we buy has changed. Customers want to affiliate and support businesses that are doing good now and align with their own values. Our social initiative has only enhanced the syntax of the business.’
Kelli is bringing other owners along for the ride, too. Last year, to promote local shops, she hosted an open-air market for small businesses in Hank’s parking lot on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, taking inspiration from American Express’ ‘Small Business Saturday’ initiative. By embracing her community and investing in its wellbeing, Kelli has further built on her father’s loyal clients. Among the lessons learned from the recent pandemic is one of longevity: will your customers support you in tough times, and come back when you open again? With Hank’s, it was never a doubt.
Find out the latest from Hanks at @hanksminimarket
Discover more businesses part of the emerging ‘grassroots economy’ who are putting their social missions before profit.