Anabel's Grocery: Two Years in the Making, Now Here for Good
I first covered Anabel's Grocery for the Sun two years ago. At that point, the store — which didn't even have a name — was more of an idea than a reality; there was no layout or funding. Still, it was slated to open in fall of 2015. While that lofty goal didn't ultimately pan out due to a number of issues regarding renovations and the problems associated with construction in an old building, Anabel's Grocery finally opened its doors on Sunday, May 7 — and it was worth the wait.
The executive team of Anabel's let me into the store a number of times in the weeks leading up to the opening, and the transformation was astounding. When I first saw the interior of the store a couple weeks prior to opening day, I wondered how I was going to have to break it to them that this was going to be impossible. The space itself was beautiful — natural light floods the store, and the views from every window are phenomenal — but it was a room filled with boxes, not a store.
The architecture students working day and night to construct the store put me in my place. Every time I visited, it looked more and more like a grocery store — a beautiful one. The place was designed and constructed entirely by students, which absolutely blows my mind. "It's nice that we could showcase what we learned on campus," said Anders Izumi Evanson (B.Arch. '18), an architecture student on the design and fabrication team.
"In terms of the space, we're trying to go with something very open," the design director, Alisa Tiong (B.Arch. '18), told me. "Anabel's is trying to be — in terms of the brand — very open, very transparent, very welcoming, so we tried to translate those keywords into the store design." That intent is reflected in the student-built counters, lines of sight within the store, unobstructed windows, and the fact that the store is accessible both in its layout and in its location on the first floor of Anabel Taylor Hall.
Beyond the design layout, the store is accessible in its affordability, with project coordinator Alexandra Donovan (B.Arch. '18) calling cost the "main priority." The primary target of the store — food insecurity on campus — is addressed through low baseline prices along with a USDA survey, which will be available for students to take soon, to determine whether an individual is food insecure in terms of financial access. Those who do qualify as food insecure can opt in to receive a 10 percent discount on all the items in the store. According to Cornell's 2015 PULSE survey, 22 percent of students on campus skip meals due to financial issues.
"It's kind of a unique approach to this that no other organization that I'm familiar with is really doing, especially on a college campus. . . . Anonymity is really crucial. We're very conscious of the stigma on campus surrounding food insecurity," said Joshua Miller '17, director of HR.
Even without the discount, the prices are low, especially compared to the jacked-up prices students trapped in Collegetown are used to. "Seeing a price tag with around 15 cents or 30 cents . . . is a little bit jarring for people to see," said codirector Adam Shelepak '17.
He was right: I was shocked seeing the price tags on the produce, despite the warning. You could buy an onion for 30 cents, a bell pepper for 40, an apple for 50. Those aren't prices I'm used to seeing. I paid for my purchase using the loose change in my wallet. Anabel's location makes it easy to buy breakfast or a snack on the way to or from class without debating whether you can spare the change. In the future, Anabel's plans on featuring bagels that you can toast in the store, which you can then pair with the free coffee offered by Durland Alternatives Library, located in the room next door.
But Anabel's isn't just for snacks and vegetables; you could almost exclusively do your entire weekly food shopping there. The store has multiple kinds of pasta and sauces, tofu (with meat slated to be available next semester), eggs, frozen meals, bread, baking supplies, condiments, spices — essentially anything you would normally buy to make a meal. I could have purchased all of the ingredients I needed to make my dinner last week — a sesame tofu quinoa bowl — at approximately the same price Wegman's sells them for, without any of the hassles of leaving campus.
The final aspect of Anabel's that makes it so uniquely brilliant is its commitment to education and literacy. The store is "a living learning lab," according to Miller, in that "students can practice real-world skills in here." The store itself serves as a case study for students to learn about entrepreneurship. Beyond that, Anabel's seeks to educate its shoppers by providing them with recipes and culinary tips. Providing students with affordable food is almost worthless if they don't know what to do with it. When I walked in on Sunday morning, I was offered cards on how to marinate different foods, how to prepare a smoothie and where to store which kinds of vegetables. Through a combination of recipes, tips, samples and cooking classes, Anabel's seeks to help make food even more accessible at Cornell.
Anabel's Grocery has gone from an idea to a reality in a relatively short period of time, and I predict it will quickly become a staple on Cornell's campus. "It's a pretty big renovation project, and just by that alone, it kind of gives it some permanence," said codirector Kerry Mullins '18.
Despite the sense of permanence, the store's direction is fairly malleable depending on the reactions and suggestions of the students shopping there. "This is a dynamic space and it's an iterative process and it's reflective of whatever the students desire. I see it adapting and changing to the students' needs, whether that's taste preferences, or what we're offering in terms of programming materials or whatever. It's a constant reflection of what the students want and designing it for the students and tailoring it to their needs," said Miller. In that spirit, Anabel's has a suggestion box for shoppers to comment on any products they wish were available or anything else they would like to see featured in the store, and next semester the items available will reflect both seasonality and student desires, according to Shelepak.
"I think it's really interesting to see . . . how this project cuts across all facets of Cornell University and it's kind of like a microcosm of Cornell University," said Miller. "We have people from all different majors, beliefs, and identities and those are what have informed this space and the conversations with other students on campus. This space . . . is reflective of the student body, the student sentiment, the student community, and it's all about the community coming together. We want this to be a space for collaboration and community."
If the line extending out the store on Sunday is any indication of how Anabel's will bring the community together, I think the wait for this store was well worth it. Anabel's is here for good — both in its permanence and in the good it is doing shifting the culture surrounding food on campus.
Anabel's will be open through the end of finals week from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends and will reopen at the beginning of next semester.
By Olivia Lutwak, The Cornell Daily Sun
Anabel's Grocery: Two Years in the Making, Now Here for Good was originally published on May 8, 2017, in The Cornell Daily Sun.