By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For the Birmingham Times
Anthony Marino, owner of Marino’s Market in Five Points West, has had many reasons to expand his stores, but one always seemed paramount.
“We’ve built onto our stores . . . so we could put in healthier fruits, vegetables, and different types of foods,” he said. “We closed the gap for the underserved … by expanding and remodeling our store and adding healthier, more nutritious foods at both of our locations.”
Sixty-nine percent of Birmingham’s population lives in a food desert and each City Council district has at least one U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-designated food desert, according to the city. Overall, 149,000 Birmingham residents live in a food desert.
A food desert is an area that “… [lacks] access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up a full and healthy diet,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Marino’s stores are located at 2415 Ave. E in Ensley and 1965 Bessemer Road. Last year, Marino’s Market in Birmingham’s Central Park neighborhood underwent a $4.2-million upgrade and expansion that added 7,500 square feet to the existing building. In 2011, Marino’s Market renovated its Ensley store at a cost of $3 million.
The expansions have enabled Marino to provide more choices for his customers.
“We have gone in with more variety for fruits and vegetables, [such as] more than one kind of pear; two or three different kinds of apples; asparagus; different kinds of broccoli: crowns or florets,” he said. “We’ve added all of that, and we’re trying to get [customers] educated to eat healthier.
“For both of our remodels, we’ve added onto the buildings, made them bigger, and offered more variety in all the departments: produce, meat, dairy, frozen and non-frozen foods. … We have stepped up with both of our stores to fill that need.”
That’s nothing new for the Ensley native. Beginning in 2004, Marino encouraged customers to purchase more nutritious multigrain and wheat breads. Even at his own expense, he sold healthier breads in his stores at a discount to create a healthier customer base.
“If you go through my bread shelves, you’ll see more [wheat] breads than you will white breads,” he said. “It’s better if we teach [customers] that they need to eat more whole grains.”
Marino said he told bread companies years ago that he wanted to promote brown breads, and they told him he’d make less margin. He told them, “I understand, but if I have healthier customers, they will live longer, and I will have a customer base for many years to come.”
Marino and his family have been serving Fairfield, Ensley, and Five Points West for nearly 100 years. Though he has witnessed the economic decline that has forced many grocers to close their doors for good, he has never considered moving from his location.
“I’ve just decided to put a brand-new store in the area where I am to eliminate a food desert,” he said. “The problem with food deserts is [residents and businesses] did not leave because they were making money; they left because they could not make enough money.”
Knows the Business
Marino, 71, knows the business and the market well.
“I’ve been in this business since the age of 5,” he said. “I’m a Sicilian-Italian-American. My grandfather came [to the U.S.] at the turn of the century and started this business at 25 in 1925 in Fairfield. … We make 94 years this year [and have been here for four generations. My grandfather. My dad, who went into it in 1953, so I grew up there and am the third generation. Now my son is involved; he’s 33 and is the fourth generation. He’s going to be the successor.”
Marino’s son, Anthony Jr., currently runs the business operations and is in charge of all the remodeling and expansion projects for their family-owned stores.
Like most neighborhood grocers, Marino’s also provides jobs: “All the people I hire live in my area.”
“We hire all local people,” the elder Marino said. “If you look at our stores, we probably have 75 percent African-American employees. It might even be more than that now. We hire from neighborhoods in the city of Birmingham.”
Marino even offers college scholarships through his Education with a Purpose program: “I saw it was a need for the kids,” he said.
Education with a Purpose branched off from the local Party with a Purpose organization, which has been raising proceeds through their fundraising events for more than a decade. Education with a Purpose, established in 2013, has given more than 100 college scholarships; applicants must write a 200-word essay and have completed community service hours to qualify.
Marino, who has been recognized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for his work, said, “I’m doing this because I’m trying to get people interacting with and involved in their communities.”
Click one of the links below to read more stories about food deserts and grocery stores.