When Lucía Angel, 28, and Jorge Saldarriaga, 30, came up with the idea for Grocery Run Club in early July, they first asked their network of friends to Venmo them $5 to help pack a bag of groceries for a family in need. The concept came after weeks of volunteering at food banks on Chicago’s South and West sides. At the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic, supplies flowed freely. However, by late June support was dwindling — but the lines of people requesting assistance were not.
“In the beginning, there were organizations that were able to pass out boxes full of food and basic necessities,” remembers Angel. “On June 24, the boxes we were handing out only contained a toothbrush, sunscreen, and basil. It was so disheartening to see people from the community showing up [for food], and there wasn’t any support for them.”
The couple, who began dating in 2017, identify as Latinx, one of the communities most negatively impacted by COVID-19. Saldarriaga was raised by a single mother who relied on government assistance to keep her family fed. Angel is from Little Village, where the median household income is $33,612 — only $7,000 above the poverty line. Had the coronavirus pandemic occurred a decade or two earlier, it is not difficult to imagine either of the two in line with their families, requesting help. Their goal in starting Grocery Run Club was to provide a safety net for families that could easily be their own. And while their personal upbringing called them to this work, it was their professional experience that uniquely positioned them to act as a bridge between underserved communities and the people with financial resources to help them.
Angel began her career working for Stephanie Izard and then One Off Hospitality Group, both marquee names. From there, she founded Luce Ends, a cultural programming and event production agency that focuses on creating experiences that center and celebrate diverse voices. The agency was hired by Pitchfork, the Hoxton hotel in Fulton Market, and Red Bull to ensure their events and marketing campaigns in Chicago were reflective of the city’s culture.
Saldarriaga started adulthood in culinary school. From there, he worked for nearly a decade in various restaurants working a variety of back-of-house and front-of-house jobs. He eventually ended up in marketing. Over the last year, Saldarriaga worked as the cultural market manager for Diageo Brands in Chicago, where his portfolio included Don Julio, Crown Royal, and Ketel One. His primary function was to collaborate with and support community leaders and organizations (such as Chance the Rapper’s Social Works, Hispanic Alliance for Career Enhancement, and Comercio Popular) that were making an impact in underserved communities by sponsoring their events.
Their backgrounds led them to volunteer at food banks during the pandemic, but they quickly identified a need for broader, more sustained assistance. “In a matter of three months, we saw an enormous amount of support, and then it was like people said, ‘Oh, it’s over,’ and it’s not over. How can you stop supporting?” says Saldarriaga.
The support isn’t unlike a new restaurant opening. At first, curious customers shower new spots with attention. But after that initial outpouring, business tapers off. The challenge for Saldarriaga and Angel was to sustain support for the community. The pair channeled those frustrations by tapping into their marketing knowhow. Two weeks after the couple made their informal email request to family and friends, they returned with a website, a branded Instagram account (with graphic designs created by Leila Register), and a plan to mobilize their community, attract a larger audience, and keep people engaged. In the second round of their request for help, the two focused on getting supporters to commit to recurring donations rather than just a one-time transaction.
“We can’t solve long-term problems rooted in systemic inequities with a short-term solution,” says Saldarriaga. “Monthly commitments allow us to create a long-term solution by giving us the room to plan and predict. As of today, we have 350 donors, 75 percent of which are recurring donations.”
With a contribution of $10, Angel and Saldarriaga can supply a family of two with a week’s mix of fresh produce and nonperishable items. Double the amount to $20, and it can provide a family of four with the same supplies in addition to household essentials. With a $50 donation, the pair can help a family of four with two week’s worth of fresh produce, nonperishables, baby items, and household essentials. In an act of transparency, every Sunday, the couple posts an itemized receipt of their expenses so supporters can see exactly how their funds were used.
The effort has drawn the attention of several figures in the restaurant industry. Former Spiaggia chef and Top Chef winner Joe Flamm is helping the cause. Grocery Run Club currently partners with Alt_Market — an art nonprofit that throws community pop-ups — to keep their shelves (full of free products for the Austin community) stocked, and the North Lawndale Community Garden, where they provide and distribute 50 fresh produce boxes each week. The organization has an upcoming partnership with the Love Fridge Chicago to help set up two community fridges, in Little Village and Pilsen, that Grocery Run Club would then stock once a week. To date, Saldarriaga and Angel have secured financial donations from Red Bull and in-kind product from Gotham Greens and Lifeway.
“The idea behind GRC is to be a lifeline for organizations that are already established and doing the work,” Saldarriaga says. “We’re not trying to intrude, post up, and suddenly leave. We’re trying to cultivate community. This is not us giving to them, this is us helping each other.”
“This is who we are,” says Saldarriaga. “Black and brown people are who we serve and focus on. You don’t have to look too far into our history to know we are people of the land. It’s not far-fetched to encourage people to reconnect with that piece of our past.”
The couple’s long-term plan is to purchase vacant and abandoned properties on the South and West sides and turn them into community gardens. The produce mined from these areas can then be used to supply Grocery Run Club’s partners. The pair both have family histories that involve farming: Angel has one grandparent who raised and sold pigs, and two others grew and sold corn, watermelons, beans, melons, and squash in Mexico. Saldarriaga’s grandfather owned a mini store in Pereira, Colombia, where he grew produce that was sold on-site. With Grocery Run Club, the couple hopes to meld their ancestral past with their current standing to create a new way of doing things, which includes sustainable food solutions for underserved communities.
“As a born and raised Chicagoan and a first gen, Mexican-American, I’ve seen the inequities that exist in our city my entire life,” writes Angel in an email. “I’ve taken ownership of honoring the beautiful parts of it through my businesses and now it’s time to face the parts of our city that have long been neglected and take action to create positive change.”