It’s hard to nail down what is the Blue Jackalope. But one thing is certain; it’s getting a lot of attention.
The unique neighborhood marketplace/grocery store/coffee shop/sandwich deli/community center was recently highlighted during a state legislative hearing as a business that’s doing it right in helping Oklahomans eat better.
In fact, that seems to be the mantra of proprietor Scott Smith, whose web site prominently displays “Sustenance: That which sustains life and spirit; nourishment; food.” That, coupled with his “shop in the place where you live,” encapsulates what Smith is all about.
Its location just north and west of Downtown Tulsa at 306 S. Phoenix, is not in any “hot spot.” Crosbie Heights is an old blue-collar neighborhood, where many have lost their jobs and the area shows it.
The Blue Jackalope is a converted church (complete with baptismal) and a quaint throwback to the old general store of yesteryear. It has a little of everything, and if you can’t find it, there’s something close to get you by.
During growing season the store is stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers, like Train Whistle Farm, Boot Strap Farm and Newsome Family Farm. The freezer is full of fresh meat offered by a local rancher, who can earn more money by dealing locally with businesses like Smith’s, while keeping the cost to consumers lower than the major supermarkets.
At lunch time, the Blue Jackalope is a mecca for the downtown business crowd looking for something different and a quick bite. Their signature sandwich is hummus and avocado with muenster cheese on wheat bread. No French fries, no snazzy marketing combo meals, just nutrient-dense and healthy food served up with a smile and no pretenses.
Just the way Smith wants it.
He recently started opening his doors at 7 a.m. to welcome the breakfast crowd. His breakfast fare includes a variety of egg scramblers or a hearty steaming bowl of oatmeal. With anything new, Smith likes to get direct feedback from his customers and find a way to provide it.
Being a community gathering place, there is the occasional need for frivolity and entertainment. Where the altar once stood is now a stage with a projection screen. On Friday nights, adventurous Tulsans can go to the Blue Jackalope to watch bad movies. It’s free, and there’s popcorn and other snacks available for sale.
Sunday mornings at 9:30, local musicians Ken Ackley (guitar) and Gwen Fuller (vocals) offer acoustical jazz in a very intimate setting that is spiritual to those who appreciate music as a universal language. Afterward, around 11 a.m. the pork loins and ribs are ready to come out of the smoker and the Blue Jackalope community gets its collective grub on. During the winter months, the weather may not cooperate with outdoor cooking, so calling ahead (918-582-5344) would be wise.
In the works, the future of the Blue Jackalope is going online. There is already a website (http://www.bluejackalope.com) where Smith’s folksy down-home personality comes across in his unique prose. Those who sign up for his newsletters will get a regular dose of humor and stay apprised of new products and weekly activities. What Smith hopes to offer in the near future is online shopping and delivery.
Smith believes access to healthy food is empowerment and a community without it is bankrupt of its driving force.
The success of the Blue Jackalope is not only as a stand-alone grocer, but as a model for other neighborhoods to adopt. There is a growing movement across the country of smaller grocery stores opening up for business and competing against the big corporations.
Ironic, as those same big grocers who changed the economic landscape just a few decades ago by shutting down many small family owned businesses like the Blue Jackalope, are seeing them rise again.
Agriculture has long been one of the main sources of income for many Oklahomans, but 99.7% of the farming done here is for agri-business and commodity, which leaves only .03% of Oklahoma’s agriculture cropland available for fruit and vegetable production. Only a small portion of farmers are growing this variety of crops for sale at local farmers markets. Smith, also a big supporter of Buy Fresh Buy Local OK (http://www.BuyFreshBuyLocalOK.com), directs anyone interested to go there for available information about how to find and support local farmer markets.
“We have the ability to grow tomatoes, spinach or cabbage right here, but instead we rely on importing those items from places like California or worse, outside of the US. Food that we could grow right here in our own community cheaply is made less accessible and more expensive by importing,” said Smith, “Our Oklahoma farmers should be taking care of their own right here first, and compensated better for doing so.”
This is an area of concern for Tulsa area policy-makers, like Reps. Jabar Shumate (D-Tulsa) and Seneca Scott (D-Tulsa), who are attempting to provide better access to healthy food for people who don’t have it.
The positive news is that the number of farmer markets in Oklahoma tripled last year, so the trend is getting better.
Oklahomans are still ranked 50th in the nation in the annual consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. This has consequences in our economic as well as our physical health. Obesity, diabetes and heart disease are problems everywhere in the US, but Oklahoma is one of the unhealthiest states in the country. By altering our eating habits and gaining access to better food, we can change our status dramatically in a relatively short period of time.
Smith, and many Tulsans who agree with him, are working to create solutions, but it is a frustrating battle in the current economy to find resources needed.
“This is a different angle from the current debate over health care reform,” said Smith, “but it is important to encourage people to eat healthier. We should be looking for ways to get the most bang for our buck, solving problems after the fact will be more costly than prevention on the front end.”
“Convenience stores and fast food chains offer cheap food with little nutritional value. Many Tulsans are using these two sources for their entire daily food intake, which is unhealthy and unacceptable,” said Smith, who has not stocked several items in his store so his customers can make healthier choices.
The Blue Jackalope is not a store catering to those who want to purchase cigarettes or alcohol either.
“It’s not a morality battle where I’m choosing either side, or a financial decision; fact is I’d make more money selling those items, but I wanted to create a family-friendly atmosphere where parents would feel comfortable bringing their whole family in to shop, and not selling beer or tobacco just felt like the right thing to do,” Smith said.
Other communities could benefit from a store similar to the Blue Jackalope, a small neighborhood market with local produce and other healthy foods available.
A problem that Smith knows all too well is the lack of distribution from wholesalers. Many of the food distributors that supply the chain supermarkets require minimum order amounts small grocers like Smith can’t afford alone.
What Smith envisions is a cooperative of 20 or 30 small local grocers, which could collectively bargain with these distributors and start to compete with the larger grocery chains that are not willing to provide their goods by locating in neighborhoods that desperately need them.
In addition to business opportunities for individual grocers like Smith, there would also be a need for warehouse space and a micro-distribution network.
“This could also facilitate a greater market for local farmers, who could sell their produce at farmers markets as well as through the local grocer cooperative. As it is now, everything is very disorganized and piecemeal,” said Smith.
A possible source of grant money is already being made available through NTEDi (North Tulsa Economic Development Initiative) to incentivize and encourage those willing to pursue small business ideas like the small grocer and local food distribution network. NTEDi’s mission is to provide North Tulsa with new business development one project at a time. Bringing healthy food options would be a very good start to empowering this community.
Many folks, including Smith, would like to see the Blue Jackalope used as a template to be duplicated throughout the parts of the city and state without access to one of life’s basic necessities… healthy food.