by David N Johnson

November 22, 2019

This is where it all began, ” gestured the old man. “Of course, this isn’t what it looked like in the early ’80s, but the premise is the same.”

The old man and the journalist stood just inside the doors of A New Life Grocers, the flagship store of roughly 35 locations across the U.S. It was an hour before opening time.

I call this the calm before the storm, ” the old man started. “It’s my favorite time of the day as I walk the aisles, remembering. Come, take a stroll with me.”

As the journalist fought to keep up, he noticed how clean and sparkly everything was. Every aisle was perfectly stocked, no holes anywhere. Bright and cheery the store invited you in, embracing you like a warm hug.

Each aisle listed the names of the people who stocked it, their smiling faces, next to each name, showed the pride they felt. The produce aisle, if it could be called an aisle at all, took up almost half of the cavernous store. Nearly every fruit and vegetable you can imagine was on display, each one at the peak of freshness. The butcher was much the same, everything perfectly in order, as were the cheese station and the seafood department. Each of these departments had their own name and own look, with A New Life Grocers being almost mall-like with individual stores within. There was nothing else like it. Shopping here was an experience like no other; it’s employees dedicated to making sure everything is perfect for every shopper, all the time.

With only 35 locations, A New Life Grocers has the honor of having the highest per average store profit of any grocery store chain in the world. If they were for-profit, that is.

They thought I was mad, ” said the old man. “But I have a knack of making people see things my way. It took some time, but I secured the funding I needed to open up this store.”

I read that it was rough in the beginning, ” started the journalist. “Tell me a little bit about that.

I think about that a lot, and where this all started. I think about it because it gives me hope. It reminds me of what it means to be thankful.”

A Life Worth Pursuing Takes Risks

After convincing investors that my idea was sound, and I use the term investors loosely because I then had to convince them that they weren’t investing but donating to a worthy cause, that’s when things got tough. You see, my idea wasn’t just to create a world-renown shopping experience but one that was staffed by the homeless.

Typically, the two don’t go hand and hand. I mean, who wants to buy food from a homeless person? The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t clean them up, or make them presentable, or that they have a bad work ethic; it was the stigma that high-end shoppers have of the homeless.

Early on, I hired barbers and beauticians, provided uniforms and training. Getting people that wanted to work to work was easy. Getting people to shop wasn’t. I named this store A New Life Grocer because that’s what we were offering, A New Life. Most homeless people want to be seen. They aren’t lazy; a lot of them lack skills or are depressed. Some have mental illnesses that can be treated. We offer all of our employees livable wages and a host of services from tuition grants and therapy to free healthcare, gym benefits, and ongoing life skills training.

All of that was the easy part. It took almost three years to turn a profit because of the stigma, and I almost had to close this place down, but by the grace of others, a movement was born. Because I was willing to take a risk on my dream, I was able to fulfill it. I was finally able to make myself whole by helping to make others whole.

That’s the third principle I want to share with you: Being risk-averse limits your potential and requires you to be okay with mediocrity.

Being risk-averse limits your potential and requires you to be okay with mediocrity.Click To Tweet

Being able to take risks required to achieve your dreams comes after learning that happiness is a choice. If you’re so paralyzed by losing what you have that you’re not willing to risk it for something greater, then you’ll never be in sync with who you’re meant to be.

I’m not talking about taking risks to take risks. Instead, I’m talking about taking risks that, when calculated, have more upside than down. I like to call this Risk-Forward thinking. Too many times, we are paralyzed by the fear of losing what we’ve already gained that we convince ourselves that what we thought we wanted wasn’t what we wanted. We then push these desires to the side and bury them with the lies we tell ourselves to make our lack of trying more palatable.

Early on, I decided that I wouldn’t take a dime from A New Life because I wasn’t starting this for me but for people like Jasper. On the side, I continued to work for the small non-profit, lived sparsely. As A New Life started turning a profit, I starting consulting with large companies and how they can make societal differences by being part of the people first movement. But that’s for another time.

During our last conversation, we spoke about the importance of being in sync with your ambitions. To do that, you must be able to risk the level of comfort that you’ve already achieved. To pursue life, you must be willing to make tough choices. You can’t live in fear of what could happen if things don’t work out the way you envision them. That only stunts your growth and limits the life you could have. That’s in direct violation of my second principle: be more so that you can do more. As you can see, the do more part isn’t about doing more things for yourself but so that you can do more things for others. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats.

***

He pauses in his narrative to pluck an apple from the display. “We started selling only fruits and vegetables, an upscale farmers market.

As you can see, it’s still very much a part of who we are. I spent a lot of time finding the right places to source our produce from. I wanted to sell something that the people of A New Life would be proud of. It’s the pride of working towards something bigger than themselves that helps them to right their lives.” He gestures around him once more. “This is the house that love built, as corny as that sounds. We’re one big family, sure we have our differences, but it works.” Carefully he places the apple back down, positioning it just right.

Talking about risks reminds me of the first time we spoke about starting our own farm. It was brought up in a company-wide meeting by Benny Yang. He had worked on farms back in China most of his life, but soon after arriving in America, he lost his family to a drunk driver. Depressed and heartbroken, he lost the will to live. One day he just quit his job, moved out of his house, and lived on the streets for almost ten years before he came in one day looking for a job. We hired him to work in produce because that was what he knew.” The old man paused long enough to wipe a tear from his eye.

Benny died a few months back; he was a great man and one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met. Anyway, he suggested that we open up a farm and that he could run it. A few of the other workers said they would enjoy working in the field. Now, each of our locations has a farm, growing local produce to sell in the store. He’s the namesake of our produce department: Bennys’ Orchard.”

The old man stopped to look at his watch. “Five minutes till the opening bell.” Then back towards the journalist. “Come with me. Let me introduce you to a few people.”

With that, the old man walked towards the back of the store, the journalist still fighting to keep up.

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About the author 

David N Johnson

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