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Store Owner Mara Allen on Providing Nutritious Options in a Food Desert

Mara Allen, owner of Urban Market, says fresh fruits, vegetables and meats are important in staying healthy and fit for Bessemer residents. (Sydney Melson, The Birmingham Times)
By Sydney Melson
The Birmingham Times

Mara Allen owns Urban Market, a grocery store in the Jonesboro neighborhood of Bessemer that offers a broad range of food options, but her source of pride comes from the fresh produce she sells in an area that many consider a “food desert” – including United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Allen knows the importance of providing fruits and vegetables in area with limited access to stores and shops that sell fresh, nutritious food.

“There was a store in the same building [where Urban Market currently is] eight years ago; it was more like a convenience store. Once it closed down, people had to go a couple miles just to get to a store,” she said.

The lack of nutritious options is a problem, especially when your alternatives are unhealthy items, such as junk food, Allen said.

“Fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats are important for staying healthy and fit, especially in an area with a lot of people who get around Bessemer by walking,” she added.

Business Savvy

Allen is more than just a grocery store owner, though. Her business savvy has served her well as a nurse and day care owner, professions that have allowed her to help others—and she does the same at Urban Market. When she opened the store five months ago, she came up with different ways to help her community, including offering $1 deals and incentive programs.

“There’s a daily discount for seniors, and there’s a loyalty program,” she said. “I’m always trying to do something that benefits others.”

Urban Market also offers a hotspot and a dine-in area, where people can sit and eat hot food from the 3 Sisters Café located in the store, as well as enjoy free coffee and cookies. The café—which serves up fried chicken, green beans, smothered pork chops, and more—aims to be affordable and also offers Door Dash for home delivery.

“There aren’t many cafés that serve a full meal for $8.99,” Allen said. “I have people come in all the time and say they had plenty left over.”

While the café offers comfort foods, freshly cooked vegetables are always up for grabs on the hot bar.

Urban Market is just one part of several businesses that Allen oversees; she also runs four daycares in Birmingham, East Lake and Bessemer. Allen, 45, takes pride in being a Black businesswoman, but her enterprises mean much more than that.

“A lot of people during these times are looking for Black-owned businesses to support, and I appreciate it, but this is about the people I serve,” she said. “Folks of all colors come into my store, and everyone is welcome.

“I get reviews from all sorts of people that praise my store, and that’s what I look for. If there’s something I don’t have that you’d like to see in my store, I’m gonna make sure I get it.”

Climbing to the Top

Allen was born and raised in Brighton, Alabama; she is the middle child, with two siblings. She attended Virginia College, Lawson State Community College (LSCC), and Herzing University to earn degrees in business, early childhood development, and nursing.

By the time Allen was 25, she had four young kids.

“I worked several jobs, just trying to make a living for them,” she said.

The odd jobs eventually inspired Allen to take her education to the next level. Because she knew she wanted to own a business and she enjoyed working with children, she started out in business at Virginia College for about a year before leaving to major in early childhood development at LSCC. She graduated in 2004 and opened her first day care the same year, but she ran out of money.

“I just completely gave up on it and went to nursing school,” she said.

Allen went on to earn a licensed practical nurse certificate from LSCC and held nursing positions at a nursing home and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). She then attended Herzing University to become a registered nurse.

“I still love nursing,” she said. “I was actually a nurse with Brookwood Baptist up until about three years ago.”

Back to Business

Though she enjoyed working with children and as a nurse, Allen still wanted to be a business owner—and an opportunity came in her last year of clinicals at LSCC in 2005.

“A friend of mine called and said she had seen a building over in East Lake that would make a great day care,” she said.

Allen’s husband, Rod, was the only one working at the time, but he believed in her.

“I don’t know how we got it open,” she said of Everyday Sunshine, which started with about five kids the first year and a staff of mostly volunteers. “After that first year, it just blew up to over a hundred kids.”

From there, Allen opened day cares in Birmingham, East Lake, and Bessemer and invested time into fully understanding how the business works.

“I want to know what I’m doing, and I’m very hands-on. I’ll be the stocker I’ll be the cashier. I’ll mop the floors,” she said. “For each location I’ve opened, I worked there for at least a year full-time before putting someone in as a director.”

Part of Allen’s business strategy involves getting a feel for the community and a good grasp on how the business works before passing it along to her supervisors and moving on to the next business venture.

Allen got into the grocery store business because the location was familiar; it’s where she raised her kids and also made a family out of the neighborhood. While living in Bessemer, she met many in need and decided to do something about it.

“It’s just what I do. I see opportunities, I see things that the community needs,” she said. “I want to do things that benefit not only myself but the community, as well.”

Opening Urban Market during the COVID-19 pandemic came with challenges, such as getting the right paperwork amid a lot of government office closures. Nonetheless, just as she’s done with everything else in life and in business, Allen persevered.

And she’s passed that business acumen on to her family.

“My son, [Glin], who is 21, just opened his own graphics shop in Bessemer,” Allen said. “We just got him to 100 percent, so he runs that on his own now.”

Allen also partnered with Glin when opening the grocery store to help him understand the ins and outs of opening and maintaining a business. In addition, her husband, who works in logistics for Steel Dynamics Inc., provides a lot of support.

Though Allen has endured a lot of hardships and struggles while raising her children and opening multiple businesses, she survives through her faith in God.

“Prayer got me through a lot of it,” said Allen, who attends Shady Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Bessemer, adding that Pastor Victor L. Harkins is her first contact when she needs inspiration.

“He texted me out of the blue this morning to let me know he was praying for me,” she said, noting that those prayers are an immense help.

“Knowing that everything was built on God, that he’ll never leave me or forsake me, I can get through it.”

Urban Market is located at 200 9th St. S., Bessemer, AL 35020. For more information, call 205-519-5271; visit www.urbanmarketshop.com; or follow at Urban Market on Facebook and Urban Market Bessemer on Instagram.

Click one of the links below to read more stories about Bessemer. 

How Dr. Autumm Jeter Reimagines and Reshapes the Bessemer School System

Mayor Ken Gulley’s Means Business for Bessemer and the Region

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