Cook Medical Inc. never anticipated it would build a grocery store. But it wasn’t the company’s idea—and that’s the beauty of it, says Cook Group and Cook Medical President Pete Yonkman. The Bloomington-based company is building its newest manufacturing facility on the near northeast side of Indianapolis in a neighborhood that faces some of the highest levels of unemployment and poverty in the state. As the medical device giant got to know the neighborhood, local residents shared a desperate need: access to fresh food.
“We never had a grocery store in our plans at all,” says Yonkman. “The idea came from the community. We listened and added our resources.”
Cook announced in late 2020 that it would partner with Goodwill of Central & Southern Indiana to build the manufacturing facility at 38th & Sheridan Avenue, a predominantly African American neighborhood. The state-of-the-art Cook operation is set to open by the end of the year and will hire about 100 people from the area to assemble intricate medical devices such as drainage catheters, needles and sheaths.
“The neighbors there have really embraced us…and they started talking to us about the lack of access to food,” says Yonkman. “They told us how many grocery stores had left in the last five to seven years, how they see families shopping for food in gas stations and riding the bus for one hour round-trip to get groceries.”
And so the idea was born to build the Indy Fresh Market, a 14,000-square-foot full-service supermarket to turn the tide in what is currently a food desert.
“If we want to be successful as a business, our community has to be successful too,” says Yonkman. “It’s very hard to be at your best as a community when you don’t have access to food, reliable transportation or housing. Those are things we want to make sure we’re partnering with people [in the neighborhood] on, who are already doing a lot of good work in those areas.”
Partnership is at the heart of the grocery store; project leaders will launch the Indy Fresh Market, but ownership will eventually be passed to Michael McFarland and Marckus Williams, local Black entrepreneurs.
“The goal here is to help the community lift itself, so we don’t start gentrification. We’re not trying to bring in outside resources; we really want to help the people who are already there,” says Yonkman. “Having ownership with Michael and Marckus will allow them to build that wealth. They’re so community-minded; they’re already interested in seeing how they can help other businesses grow as well.”
Childhood friends who grew up in the neighborhood and recently returned, the pair opened a small market nearby about two years ago. Yonkman says they “talked to us about struggles they’re having with the supply chain, the size of the store and trying to get capital.” Partners in the 38th & Sheridan project united to lay the groundwork for McFarland and Williams to create a better grocery store.
Cook Medical will build the store and IMPACT Central Indiana, along with other local partners, will provide capital and inventory. McFarland and Williams will manage the store, and through a lease-to-own agreement, eventually own the Indy Fresh Market and the real estate on which it sits.
Project leaders say the store will not only provide additional jobs for local residents, but also training and educational opportunities. Martin University, the only predominantly black institution of higher education in Indiana, will develop curriculum for local residents to earn accredited certificates in grocery store operations. Indy Fresh Market employees will also have access to Goodwill’s wrap-around services, including housing support, healthcare and soft skills training.
The Cook manufacturing facility will begin production near the end of the year, and the Indy Fresh Market will open its doors in May 2022. Yonkman says the 38th & Sheridan Community Collaboration project continues to snowball as more businesses express interest in locating nearby, and “the ‘ownership’ of the project, in a way, is transferring from us to the community.”
“I think sometimes the approach [as a corporation] is, ‘How are we going to fix a community?’ But it’s not about Cook doing this; it’s finding how to join our voices and our resources with theirs. Already in the first few short months, you can start to see the change; you can see people taking ownership and coming up with new ideas, and more resources are being attracted,” says Yonkman. “Once people start to see there’s hope and opportunity, it changes their outlook. It’s amazing to watch the level of creativity and productivity that comes out of that simple change in mindset about what the future looks like.”
Yonkman says the 38th & Sheridan project has completely changed his perspective about how companies should engage with communities.
Yonkman says Martin University will partner with Indy Fresh Market to provide educational tracks for people who want to work in grocery store operations.