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Grocery store built in food desert celebrates two years in business

Oasis Fresh Market celebrated its second birthday with a DJ, free ice cream and gift card giveaways for its customers.

“Man, we made it two years,” Aaron “AJ” Johnson, Oasis Fresh Market chief executive officer, said in an interview with the Tulsa World. “I am definitely grateful. It has definitely been hard.”

The business at 1725 N. Peoria Ave. opened in May 2021 with excitement from both area residents and government leaders, both eager to see a grocery store return to the area.

After all, it had been about 3½ years since a grocery store had been located near the corner of Pine Street and Peoria Avenue.

Gateway Market, operating out of a former Albertsons grocery, had closed its doors after operating there for nearly eight years. Prior to that, Albertsons operated a business at the corner from 2003 to 2007.

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Named for its location within a food desert, Oasis Fresh Market was meant to be different than past tries.

While the 16,500-square-foot grocery store project included government grants and philanthropic assistance to get it off the ground, the nearly $5.5 million project included a nonprofit aspect aimed at helping the community beyond what a regular, full-service grocery store would provide.

Johnson said he has learned a lot in the past two years, such as that there are just a “few super powers” that control the food industry, making it difficult for small, independent grocers like Oasis that lack the bulk buying power of larger chains.

“We’ve got a great community,” Johnson said. “The grocery store is doing well. We are grateful. It’s hard being a single independent grocer in what seems to be a monopolizing industry.”

Still, Johnson said the grocery store is fulfilling one of its goals of providing fresh produce in an otherwise underserved community.

“Literally our produce numbers every month continue to go up,” Johnson said. “We’re seeing a direct correlation to young families and young kids saying ‘I want more kiwi’ and they haven’t had kiwi before.

“And so that’s encouraging, we are doing our part to literally have food as medicine … that matters in a world today where there are so much processed foods.”

The store was the first in the metropolitan area to participate in Double Up Oklahoma, which matches the value of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program dollars spent on fruits and vegetables.

Oasis, operated by the majority-Black-owned Eco Alliance Group, currently sees about 300 to 500 customers per day, Johnson said.

Questions stall $30 million expansion

Plans to expand the Oasis Fresh Market model have stalled, he said, after the state Legislature passed on a request for $30 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding.

Oasis sought the funding to build four more Oasis locations in underserved areas.

Rep. Jeff Boatman, R-Tulsa, co-chairman of a legislative working group tasked with recommending projects for ARPA funding, said Oasis is no longer under consideration.

The project ran aground amid concerns regarding the nonprofit’s leadership structure.

Some of those concerns were highlighted in an article published by the online publication Nondoc in February.

The article noted some members of Oasis’ nonprofit arm were surprised to learn they were listed as board members, when contacted by the publication.

Asked what he would say to those who might be still concerned, Johnson replied: “We’ve hired some of the best governance attorneys and nonprofit consultants, … and we are well-positioned to continue being a flagship organization both on the for-profit and nonprofit side.

“And that’s important for sustainability, having that governance and board and policies and procedures in place,” Johnson said. “And as a result of that, it’s really helped us learn even in the painful moments, we’ve learned so much that helps us give us the opportunity to be better positioned to serve people.”

Boatman agreed that the nonprofit has made strides since seeking the funding.

“He’s done a great job of getting some consultants and rectifying that and getting the structure that you ought to have as a nonprofit in place,” Boatman said. “He took the feedback and has done all the right stuff and hopefully he would be eligible for future opportunities at this point.

“But at the time that we made the decision and voted the bills through, there just wasn’t enough nonprofit governance in place for the state to be comfortable putting that much of an investment over there.”

Johnson brushed away claims that nonprofit workers sometimes worked on the for-profit side of the grocery.

The claims, by two former Oasis Fresh Market workers to the Tulsa World, were that employees of the nonprofit side, The Oasis Projects, sometimes were called upon to work on the for-profit side of the grocery.

The former employees asked not to be identified out of concern it could hurt their search for another job.

“All of our cashiers and stockers are on the for-profit side,” Johnson said when asked about the claims.

Plans to open a demonstration kitchen in the grocery store, promised since the business opened, continue on course, Johnson said. The kitchen should be open by or before Labor Day, he said.

“There’s so much potential in our communities, and in communities like ours across the country that have just been underestimated — that, if given the same opportunities as other communities, they would be also thriving communities,” Johnson said. “So we’re committed to continuing taking steps to serving people with our for-profit grocery store and also with our nonprofit providing wrap-around services.”

‘Above and beyond providing food’

Johnson said he was most pleased with the results from the project’s nonprofit arm, The Oasis Projects, also known as the Oasis Fresh Foundation.

The nonprofit, which offices out of the grocery store, provides services to the community including workforce training and assistance with rent and utility payments.

“Being the center of a community, we believe that’s how you transform a community,” Johnson said. “We know it’s not just about groceries. It’s equipping people for life.”

The nonprofit was able to help more than 3,400 people with rental and utility assistance through its administration of a grant from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, Johnson said.

The program was apparently so popular that callers to the business are still greeted with a recorded message that funding for the program had run out and is no longer available.

City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper, whose district includes the grocery store, said she is “overjoyed” with the project so far.

“I think Oasis has been a huge success, and now we’re working on improving it even more,” Hall-Harper said, adding that more grocery stores are needed in her district.

“I think we have created a model that can address food insecurity in food deserts in disenfranchised communities,” Hall-Harper said, who also led a fight against overproliferation of “dollar stores” in her district.

Asked why this grocery has succeeded while others at this corner have failed, Hall-Harper said: “It’s the other things that they bring to the table to address the whole person. I think those things are very beneficial in ensuring that the community continues to support it.”

Hall-Harper said Oasis goes “above and beyond providing food just for folks.”

She said Oasis and its workers have also developed a relationship with community members.

“I would say any business, when you develop a relationship with customers, then you are more apt to be successful, and I think that’s what (is being) done at Oasis,” Hall-Harper said.

The grocery was built on land owned by the Tulsa Economic Development Corporation.

The TEDC acquired the property and surrounding land from the Tulsa Development Authority for the construction of a shopping center.

TEDC Chief Executive Officer Rose Washington-Jones said the Oasis project has been a success.

“I think from my perspective, Oasis has exceeded my wildest imagination,” she said in an interview with the Tulsa World.

“We see financial statements every month, financials that include the balance sheet and the profit and loss statement, and so when you are a grocer, break-even is success for you and especially if you are a small operator,” Washington-Jones said.

“And he is able to cover all of his costs and keep his employees paid and keep inventory on the shelves,” she said. “He has been able to do what a successful business owner does. I think AJ has done a fabulous job getting in there, connecting with communities, providing what was needed in a really tough economic environment.”

In addition to providing nonprofit services, Johnson said hiring from the community has benefits beyond now.

“We’ve got a lot of high school students who work our afternoon and evening shifts, and it’s encouraging because now they say, ‘AJ, now there’s someone who looks like us doing something that we would have never known,’” Johnson said.

The grocery store currently employs 27 full-time equivalent employees while the nonprofit employs nine on a full-time equivalent basis, Johnson said.

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