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How ShopRite's Jeff Brown became a progressive - and a soda tax opponent

Jeff Brown grew up in the Far Northeast and in the suburbs. But his heart is still in Parkside.

ShopRite owner Jeff Brown displays the new Authentic Fire Grilled Chicken station of the Island Avenue store in Eastwick on Dec. 15.
ShopRite owner Jeff Brown displays the new Authentic Fire Grilled Chicken station of the Island Avenue store in Eastwick on Dec. 15.Read moreGeneva Heffernan

A lot of fellow progressives in town are giving Jeff Brown the side-eye. He doesn't actually seem to care.

Brown owns more than a dozen ShopRite and Fresh Grocer supermarkets around Philadelphia, where he has attracted national attention by hiring former prisoners and bringing healthy food to underserved neighborhoods.

Yet he's also been one of the most prominent opponents of the soda tax – which will fund the expansion of early childhood education and upgrades to city parks and rec centers, among other programs.

Experts disagree over the economic ramifications of the levy on sugary beverages. But Mayor Kenney describes Brown as a magnate who's griping over minimal monetary losses.  Brown and his supporters, meanwhile, say the losses are real in a business that must operate on skintight margins.

"I hope he would see the greater good that the tax is trying to address," said Mustafa Rashed, a spokesman for the pro-soda tax coalition Philadelphians for a Fair Future. Brown, who is being pressed by other liberals to reconsider his position, says the tax is woefully misguided and he has no plans to change his mind.

In opposing what's essentially the banner policy of Kenney's tenure, Brown should be in an uncomfortable position. He's a registered Democrat, a regular campaign donor, outspoken on antipoverty issues. But Brown says he's unconcerned whether he fits the mold of a progressive on every issue.

"I don't agree with everything, because not everything makes sense to me," Brown said of the party line. "I'm looking to help people."

He says his positions are driven by social justice — his opposition to the tax included.

When his introduction of halal meats in 2006 prompted Islamophobic backlash, he listened to consumers, but held the course. When his company shouldered sharp criticism from local residents who didn't like seeing former convicts take leading roles in stores, he pushed on, because, he says, the effects of mass incarceration have been too damaging.

And while nationally, nutritionists and public health experts see a major win against obesity in Philadelphia's soda tax, Brown maintains that the levy endangers the already precarious business of running a supermarket in a food desert. He can't see the victory in that.

It's not easy to turn a profit from a supermarket in a low-income neighborhood. Prices need to be affordable for the customer base and the product selection should align to the palates of the communities dwelling nearby. Donna Nuccio, director of Healthy Food Access at the Reinvestment Fund, said Brown is one of the few business owners to master this.

In his stores, shoppers encounter rices, spices, hair products, and cuts of meat that one might otherwise have to seek in an ethnic market, online, or make from scratch. A walk through the aisles at Brown's Eastwick store shows offerings that are nuanced and unusually attentive to regional distinctions.

For example, a cook can find American-style browning to make gravy, a baker can find West Indian-style browning to make a cake. John Stanton, a food-marketing expert, said  Brown stocks items that aren't high sellers, just to bring immigrants in the door. "A lot of stores focus on how much they make on a product, but people like Jeff focus on how much they make on the customer," Stanton said.

Street retailers, dollar stores, online shopping sites, drugstores, and delivery services increasingly chew at the traditional supermarket business. The Brown model bites back.

The fourth-generation grocer founded his company in 1988. ShopRite has seven supermarkets in what had been underserved neighborhoods. At his stores in Parkside, Nicetown, and Roxborough, shoppers can also visit a credit union that requires no minimum balance. Customers in Nicetown  can stop by an in-store clinic. In 2009, he launched the consulting nonprofit UpLift Solutions, which focuses on food access in low-income areas.

When the 53-year-old entrepreneur speaks, he smiles often, curving many of his vowels with touches of a local accent. He and his wife, Sandy, live in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, near Parc, where he explained his backstory over lunch. The couple moved to the city from Cherry Hill in late 2015, after all four of their sons had flown the coop. In his words, he can't stand spoiled rich kids, so if any of his children want to join the family business, they're expected to graduate from college and then put in at least three years working elsewhere.

When Brown was a kid working in his father's store, his father didn't pay him initially. This was the family way. New Central Market, then at 40th and Girard, had been founded by his grandfather. If the young Jeffrey Brown wanted to hang with his dad, he'd have to head to the store.

"We were the only two Caucasians," he said. "He'd leave me with his workers, and they'd teach me the business and they'd look after me."

This was the late 1960s and early 1970s, turbulent times for the country, and the most formative for Brown's philosophies. His father showed him you can still make money in poor communities if you know what the neighbors actually cook.

Decades before food deserts and structural poverty became familiar terms, Brown saw how food insecurity affected everyday people. He was a Jewish boy from the Far Northeast, and his standards for caring relationships were forged in that Parkside store.

"My family's perceptions of race — they're totally different than, let's say, the average person," he acknowledged.

Once he decides that a certain political cause is in the best interest of the demographic that helped raise him — underprivileged Philadelphians of color — that's pretty much it, he said. If a black person tells him he's wrong, that won't make a difference either.

"Anything that threatens them, even if they're for it, I'm not," he stated. "I have a visceral reaction to that. I can't help myself. I fight that, whether it's Democrat or Republican."

To hear Brown tell it, the problem with the soda tax is that it hits those who sell soda too broadly; shoppers aren't inclined to return to their neighborhood market after they buy their soda in the suburbs. This, he argues, crushes supermarkets and creates a chilling effect for any entrepreneur considering opening a supermarket in one of Philadelphia's food deserts.

Brown has said that sales in his Philadelphia stores are down by 15 percent since the tax was enacted in January. The research on the sales impact of the tax has been conflicting. Critics favor a report that was led by Stanton and paid for by the American Beverage Association,  which estimated roughly $300,000 in monthly losses for local supermarkets. Champions of the tax, however, tout research backed by Bloomberg Philanthropies, which found that the decline in sales hasn't intensified with the tax.

One of Brown's greatest honors was hearing President Barack Obama credit him for investing in Philadelphia neighborhoods that didn't have supermarkets. That doesn't mean Brown can get an audience with Mayor Kenney to talk about their differences.

"It would be unlikely that almost anywhere in the country, they would come up with a food desert program where they wouldn't talk to our nonprofit and get our thinking on it, except for Philadelphia, where we innovated all these things," he stated. "Why would it be more likely that Texas would call me?"