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A New Autonomous Grocery Store Blooms In Food Deserts

Photo Courtesy Nourish + Bloom Market

Food deserts are just as painful as they sound. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service says they exist where a significant portion of the people living in low-income census tracts have low levels of access to stores selling “healthy and affordable foods.”

According to Bayer, more than 6,500 food deserts exist around the country. Georgia-based Nourish + Bloom estimates that one-eighth of Americans live in a food desert. The company is working to reduce this number. It claims to be the first Black-owned, autonomous grocery store in the South, the country, and indeed, the world. 

At the start of their journey, Husband-and-wife founders Jamie Michael Hemmings and Jilea Hemmings worked in technology and research — in the healthcare industry for him and the pharmaceutical industry for her — so the food industry was not a far cry. However, it was not until their son Jabari was diagnosed with autism at age two that the couple began to take food more seriously. They started making plant-based versions of Jabari’s favorite meals, ranging from spaghetti and meatballs to mac and cheese; apparently, he was a big pasta kid. 

Photo Courtesy Jilea Hemmings

“I started to talk with girlfriends of mine who also wished they had the ability to have those types of meals every day,” Jilea told Microsoft. “So when we started creating them for our children, and they liked them, I started trying them on our friends and our neighbors.” 

From there, their business expanded to farmers markets and eventually Whole Foods. At the height of its success, the child-focused brand Greenie Tots produced frozen organic, vegan meals that could be purchased in 150 grocery stores around the country.

They were doing so well that they quit their day jobs. With an offer from a family friend to invest in the business’s growth, they even turned down the chance to go on Shark Tank.

Unfortunately, that investor then vanished into thin air, and they shuttered the doors in 2016, an experience about which Jilea wrote a book called “The Untold Truth About Building A Startup.” 

Photo Courtesy Jilea Hemmings

However, that would not be the Hemmings’ last chance to go on Shark Tank. The family moved to Atlanta in 2020 after Jilea’s dad was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. They found themselves living in a food desert, even though a lot of people were moving in and businesses and restaurants were setting up shop to be near a film production studio. 

They realized that the neighborhood needed a full-on market. Jilea’s experience growing up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, informed the route this store would take, with memories of local bodegas and corner stores where her family could buy ingredients or full-on meals. 

With funding from family and friends and the help of a Small Business Administration loan, they opened their first 1,500-square-foot store in Fayetteville in 2022. The grocery section features more than 1,000 essentials, including baked goods, fresh produce, dairy items, and meats. Essentially, they offer all the same items as a traditional supermarket but with fewer varieties. They chose all the products with the help of a nutritionist and an organic distributor, with a focus on local brands to cut back on carbon emissions, such as a nearby hydroponic garden. 

Photo Courtesy Nourish + Bloom Market

Plus, a bistro counter takes inspiration from the couples’ origins in New York and the Caribbean to create sandwiches like Philly cheesesteaks and rice or quinoa bowls. These grab-n-go items are available for easy meals and are some of the best sellers, alongside drinks like kombucha. There is even a “state-of-the-art” coffee machine. 

Photo Courtesy Nourish + Bloom Market

Nourish + Bloom was destined to function differently than any traditional grocery store, though. The Hemmings came up with the idea “to provide a solution for customers where they wouldn’t have to wait in line or touch anything while checking out” during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jilea explained to TechCrunch. 

“A lot of people didn’t want to go outside, they didn’t want to go to grocery stores, and we wanted to create a solution to get people back outside and spending money within businesses,” Jamie added to 11Alive. 

The special thing about this grocery store is that it is autonomous. Customers download the Nourish + Bloom Market app and link it to their bank account or credit card.

They then scan a QR code at the entry before going in. Next, they can proceed to take desired items, which are located on shelves that can identify their shape and weight and are tracked through light detection and ranging (LiDAR) cameras. These items are added to a virtual shopping cart, with data sent to back-end software in the app as they are selected. Finally, the customers exit the store by walking through a turnstile that calculates their total and charges the account. 

Computer vision is used to identify the items, and “voice and gesture artificial intelligence (AI) technology leads to a three-time faster checkout experience for customers of Nourish + Bloom,” Subhodip Bandyopadhyay, general manager of emerging technology for UST, said in the press release. However, there is also the ability to use the touchscreen and scan barcodes for produce, meals from the Bistro, and age-restricted items. A receipt is sent to the customer, which can be viewed in the app. 

Video Courtesy Nourish + Bloom Market

The Hemmings partnered with several companies to make this vision a reality. UST Global built the app and virtual shopping cart on its Bistro Module software to make the experience frictionless, and it also developed the Vision Checkout feature. Shekel Brainweigh is responsible for product recognition via electronic weighing systems and load sensors. 

Hitachi Vantara is the source of the LiDAR technology that protects customers’ privacy. The store itself runs on the cloud computing platform Microsoft Azure, particularly the AI features, which can help identify products that are selling well or in need of restocking.

An additional feature that makes the grocery store “frictionless” is its delivery options. Two temperature-controlled robots, aptly named Nourish and Bloom, can deliver to customers within a three-mile radius, opening for them to retrieve their order once the order number is read. Oregon-based Daxbot supplied the machines. 

Photo Courtesy Daxbot 

The model’s advantage is its cost savings, even though they pay more on a per-product basis because they do not get steep discounts like the bigger names in grocery. However, while those chains are getting bigger in size, going smaller but more efficient saves money in terms of building space, supplies, and labor. 

“Because we can reduce our costs with smaller stores, we can go into a community and run 24 hours a day,” Jilea said to Forbes. She got even more specific with Bloomberg. Compared to the $38 million price tag on a 90,000-square-foot Kroger store in the suburbs, for example, “We can eradicate a food desert now for $400,000.” In the long run, this will enable them to open more stores in more areas where the traditional grocers have long refused to go. 

“People think that autonomous means that you’re taking jobs away,” Jilea simplified to ABC News. “It actually is not. We are changing the way their jobs are done.” 

Employees are present to answer customer questions, help find grocery items, make the meals in the bodega, and ultimately create a friendly atmosphere where shoppers can feel comfortable.

But they do not have to be there at ungodly hours; the overhead cameras monitor everything so customers can still come in for what they need 24/7. 

“People have come in 12 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m. They come in, get what they need, and they walk out,” Jamie explained to 

Photo Courtesy Nourish + Bloom Market

A lot of their employees are teens and young adults, which excites the couple as an opportunity to get them “involved in STEM programs because, you know, we see a decline right now in black and brown students,” as Jilea told 11Alive. 

To change the status quo, the couple also created the Nourish + Bloom Foundation, which works to provide young children living in disadvantaged areas with STEM education and technology-focused job retraining for older ones. For example, the nonprofit is teaming up with Microsoft this July to offer its First Annual Nourish + Bloom Stem Camp to students in sixth through 10th grades. It will cover topics including gaming, the Metaverse, and NFTs. 

At the end of the day, this is a story about a Black family reinvesting in their community, which is “just so proud to see a Black family doing this, and then also to experience the technology; people have been very excited about that,” Jilea said to ABC News. 

In addition to being an honor, she elaborated to 11Alive that it’s also a responsibility. “We just want to be on the forefront for what technology looks like, especially for Black and brown young children. How do we embrace and bring them into robotics, AI, and autonomous and show them this is the future?” 

As Nourish + Bloom moves forward, there are a lot of exciting things brewing. In July, the company plans to open three more stores around Atlanta, smaller sized — almost shipping container-esque — but all run on the same model and with the same vision.

In particular, they are targeting areas around the Atlanta BeltLine, an urban redevelopment program to turn an old 22-mile railroad corridor into new parks and trails. 

To fund their expansion, the Hemmings finally made their appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank in March, although the “sharks” did not offer them a deal. However, it seems that nothing will stop this couple from achieving their mission. In fact, the experience led them to realize that raising money from the public sector may be the way to go. 

“I’m realizing that that’s really where our best play is because cities really feel the brunt of the challenges of the folks living day-to-day,” Jilea noted to Bloomberg. “They’re tasked with asking: How do we solve this?” In fact, they received a $600,000 grant from Atlanta to cover some of the costs, as well as donations from civic organizations.  

Photo Courtesy Nourish + Bloom Market

Plus, they are again turning to the community for support through the Power Of One campaign, which they launched on March 14. As the webpage explains, “Your generosity not only propels our next Atlanta store forward but ignites a nationwide movement. Our initial success was a community triumph, a testament to the power of collective action.” Likewise, 100% of the profits from merchandise sold through their Product Shop will go toward building new stores in food deserts. 

Video Courtesy Jilea Hemmings

It is clear that their mission will not stop in Atlanta. According to ABC News, the couple wants to open 800 stores around the U.S. and franchise them. They have already been contacted by other cities interested in how the Hemmings’ model and technology can help address their own food deserts. Forbes says some of those include Needles, California; Buffalo, New York; and Laredo, Texas. 

The benefit of their model is that the floor plan is extremely flexible and amenable to community needs. They can go bigger or smaller. The Hemmings told Bloomberg that there is a “single-door” plan in the works, no bigger than a vending machine, to be disbursed around airports, college campuses, and office buildings. They expect all these stores to accept Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) funds from federal nutrition assistance programs. 

But it all comes back to their children, particularly Jabari. “My son is my heart,” Jamie told 11News. “He’s really my heart, and everything Jilea and I do is for him. We know that with this store when we’re gone, he’s going to be okay.”

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