The coronavirus pandemic was ravaging companies and government money was nowhere in May 2020, when a group of business leaders created the Pennsylvania 30-Day Fund to offer grants and forgivable loans to small businesses.

Jeff Brown, who owns a dozen supermarkets in the Philadelphia region, said he and other fund founders took the vetting process personally. They phoned applicants themselves. “We’d ask them how things were going,” Brown said. “People were in tears. You know, it’s their life savings, and the stories were very similar. Their businesses were shutting down. They had nothing coming in.”

Among the people on the end of the line were many Black Philadelphians who owned nascent food businesses and knew Brown from their neighborhoods in West, South, and North Philadelphia. “A lot of them would say, ‘I’ve always wanted to talk to you. Do you think there’s an opportunity to do something with you?’ ” Brown said.

This was a lightbulb moment. Brown decided to bring some of these entrepreneurs into his 10 ShopRite and two Fresh Grocer stores, offering them retail space, kiosks, and areas in which to do pop-ups and sell their products in person. It’s something that large grocery chains rarely do because of scale.

These partnerships — which he has been doing for several years but on a smaller scale — fit perfectly into Brown’s worldview: He’s a 57-year-old fourth-generation grocer widely known for opening supermarkets specifically in food deserts. He also has been testing the waters about a run for mayor in 2023.

“When I look out at our situation in Philadelphia, I think we’re plagued with a very stubborn poverty and low minority participation in business,” Brown said. “I think that if we’re all going to live here, we need to address that in a way to make progress towards it. ”

One of Brown’s early callers was Tamekah Bost, 26, a former EMT who had recently opened her second location of The Better Box, which specializes in Philadelphia-ized versions of Chinese takeout food, such as General Tso chicken cheesesteaks and “Cajun jawn” egg rolls stuffed with grilled shrimp, crabmeat, onions, and peppers.

Her business was suffering, especially her new restaurant on Spring Garden Street near Community College of Philadelphia. Customers were loath to visit restaurants, “but the supermarkets were always busy,” Bost noted. She closed that location — keeping her Northeast Philadelphia store — and signed a deal with Brown for a kiosk at the ShopRite on Island Avenue in the city’s Eastwick section.

It opened on a trial basis in October, and a second kiosk, in the Cheltenham store in the township’s Wyncote section, followed in February 2021. By then, Bost said, she realized that working off a supermarket’s foot traffic created a better business model for an uncertain, post-COVID-19 world.

Brown keeps the financial details of the partnerships close to the vest. The growing roster also includes 10-year-old Micah Harrigan, whose Micah’s Mixx lemonade stand started making the social-media rounds in summer 2020. Micah’s first pop-up, at the 23rd Street and Oregon Avenue store in South Philadelphia on March 31, sold out.

Brown also works with Shamaya Oberlton of Rock N Rolls, which makes a variety of egg rolls; after pop-ups at the Fox Street, Island Avenue, and Parkside ShopRites, they are working out a way to sell prepackaged products. He also has hosted pop-ups by Aunt Verlea’s Pound Cake Experience. And Philly #1 Water Ice has held pop-ups in Brown’s stores for the last few years.

Even a nonfood vendor is in the mix. Feng Shui Naturals’ beauty products are sold in the Cheltenham ShopRite and Wyncote Fresh Grocer.

NaKwai DeShields’ company, What a Crock, occasionally sets up a table and a slow cooker in front of a frozen-food case at the Cheltenham ShopRite to offer samples of his foods. The Collingdale-based company, founded in 2015 by his partners Brienna and Justin West, manufactures frozen, bagged meals and dips that can be boiled or heated in a slow cooker. They are sold through a retail store in Brookhaven, at the Quakertown Farmers Market, Booth’s Corner Farmers Market in Garnet Valley, and at Reading Terminal Market.

“One hundred percent natural!” says DeShields as he pitches the stuffed peppers, chicken marsala, and Philadelphia cheesesteak dip. “It’s as simple as cutting open the bag, dropping it right into your slow cooker, and go.” DeShields’ video presentation sold Brown.

Brown said he knew DeShields as a shopper. “He was familiar with the store, and he said, ‘What do you think about me trying to sell my product there?’ ” Brown said.

Deal.

“We’re open-minded to experimenting and seeing how we could work together,” Brown said of the various affiliations. Brown said he was hiring someone to help coach and mentor the small-business owners — especially from underrepresented groups — who have never sold to grocery stores.

“Although none of us really have changed our food habits too much [during the pandemic], we also get bored of the same food dishes,” Brown said. “We’d like to try new things and we like local stuff. ... And a lot of the stuff is delicious.”

The Puddin Palace, a South Jersey-based maker of puddings, has done a few pop-ups at Brown’s locations, specifically Parkside, in West Philadelphia. They’re due back May 8, but only after owners LaGracia Givings and Miranda Jordan open their own store on April 24 at 211 W. Clinton Ave. in Oaklyn.

Givings, 50, and Jordan, 26, started in 2018 “just to make a couple extra dollars,” said Givings, whose son Davon dates Jordan. “It blew up, mostly because so many of Miranda’s friends requested it.”

Brown can move fast. After one Zoom call with Brown and his team, brothers Mengistu and Richard Koilor of Two Locals Brewing Co., Philadelphia’s first Black-owned brewery, started talking about shelf space in at least two of Brown’s stores this summer.

Cousins Cynthia Benton and Keshia Davis — who run the North Philadelphia cake bakery Denise’s Delicacies, founded 30 years ago by their aunt Denise Gause — decided to get on Brown’s radar. Benton had met Brown years before when she interviewed for a job with the Food Trust, a nonprofit that Brown was advising. “I didn’t get the job, but it left a great impression on me,” Benton said. “I just always remembered him, coupled with the fact that I would see his community engagement and involvement, so I just took a chance and reached out to him on LinkedIn.”

That was the night of June 8, 2020 — the day after the reopening of two of Brown’s stores, which had been severely damaged during a night of unrest on May 31.

Brown replied 45 minutes later. They met, and on Aug. 8, Benton and Davis had a pop-up at the ShopRite at 52nd Street and Parkside Avenue in West Philadelphia.

“The very first pop-up event that we did was incredibly successful,” Davis said. “So then we reached out and said, ‘Can we do it again?’ And they said, yes. And then we reached out again and said, ‘Can we do it again?’ ” Brown is ready to go. He and Denise’s Delicacies are working out an agreement to stock three kinds of pound cake and the chocolate cake at the Parkside and Fox Street stores.

Not all of Brown’s partners are mom-and-pops or start-ups. Snap Custom Pizza owners Peter Howey, Aaron Nocks, and Rob Wasserman, who have 10 brick-and-mortar locations, struck a deal in January 2021 to locate a design-your-own-pizza kiosk inside the Roxborough store. They recently added another brand, Big Dean’s Hot Chicken, out of the same space.

Brown frequents Wasserman’s restaurant Rouge, near Brown’s home. Wasserman said they had chatted about an in-store arrangement but the idea dropped in the early days of the pandemic. Then one day, an associate of Brown’s cold-called Snap’s office in Ardmore and suggested a meeting. Wasserman and partners were eager to open a ghost kitchen inside a busy supermarket to boost their third-party delivery business, and to sell to a stream of supermarket customers. The build-out was a fraction of setting up a brick-and-mortar location.

Snap, with Big Dean’s, expects to open in several more ShopRites. Wasserman said they view the partnership as “more than just ‘rent.’ It allows us to expand our footprint and they’re investing in us.”