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The Big Pitch: Enon Ridge’s Third Street Market brings back prize money to a community yearning for more fresh food

“I’m beyond excited about this,” Councilor John Hilliard said, heaping praise on the work being done in District 9 by Rod Cowan, the most recent winner of The Big Pitch, a business competition put on by REV Birmingham.

“He’s young, progressive and he has a vision. Whatever we can do on our end to help him succeed, we want to be able to do that,” Hilliard said.

So what does this mean for the citizens of Enon Ridge? For starters, the grocery store will be a place that provides fresh produce and food to an area that is often described as a food desert, meaning there are few options for residents to choose from when it comes to healthy food.

“Being in a food desert, people have been begging for a place like this. I’d love to see him eventually franchise the store in all of the districts,” Hilliard said.

Not only did Cowan win the $20,000 prize for his business pitch, which is a grocery store that is looking to partner with local farmers to provide the freshest food possible, but he also won the $5,000 people’s choice award, becoming the first business to win both prizes in the competition’s history.

Cowan sat down to discuss the history of the store and what he hopes to accomplish in the community.

How did you first get involved with the R&M Convenience, which has now become Third Street Market?

Cowan: I was initially working for Wells Fargo for seven years, doing home mortgage and business banking. I met my wife and her grandparents actually owned the building. Initially I was being mentored by her grandfather and what he was saying was, ‘I think you’ll be a good fit for the neighborhood.’ We acquired the building back in 2014 and we opened the store in 2015.

What was the store originally called?

Cowan: Before I acquired it, when my wife’s grandparents had it, the store was called Big O Foods. It was a convenience store. When we acquired it we changed the name to R&M Convenience. It was a partnership between me and one of my good friends. But over the course of us doing that he said he couldn’t do it anymore so I changed it from an LLP to an LLC. A lot of stuff was going on and he committed suicide, not because of that process, but a lot was going on with his family. So I kept the name for two years because it had sentimental value. It had a lot of history and meaning on this third street. Eventually we decided to change the name to Third Street Market.

How did you get involved with Big Pitch?

Cowan: We were surveying the community and trying to figure out what the main need was, the main necessity for people living there. We started looking for another grocery store that was similar to ours and we were looking at city meats which is located in Woodlawn. They had advertising showing that they were working with the urban food project. My wife Googled them and put us in touch with a woman by the name of Taylor Clark, who is over the Urban Food Project. We called her and did the initial application. She came out and looked at the store and told us we met the qualifications. We then started selling fresh fruit produce on demand as needed. We didn’t have to buy in bulk we could buy something like three apples, three oranges a few plums or whatever we needed.

She told us she was starting a program connecting local farmers to grocery stores and restaurants. Eventually I was connected to Deon Gordon with REV Birmingham and he is in charge of revitalization and bringing new businesses to Birmingham. So that’s how I originally got involved.

What improvements to the store are you looking to make with the money you won?

Cowan: With the $25,000 we’re looking to get more cooler space so we can carry more of the fresh produce. We’ll also get more products to diversify and increase our foot traffic. And we’re looking to improve the façade of the store and get new signage, landscaping, paint. Something else I’m excited about is implementing a community garden in the next six to seven months.

What do you hope this store means to the community of Enon Ridge?

Cowan: Since we’ve been here the last two years, we’ve had customers telling us that we’ve brought life back into the community. We’re going to try and be as welcoming as possible to people coming in and not having to go so far to shop at a grocery store. Everyone should be able to buy food in their own community. Community begins at home. We just want to be a healthy choice for the community.

This article is a contribution from Cody Owens (cody.owens@birminghamal.gov) in the Birmingham City Council Public Information Office. For more information contact 205.254.2294.