Why 'Treme' Star Wendell Pierce Is Getting Into the Supermarket Business

Wendell Pierce Mardi Gras - P 2012
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Wendell Pierce Mardi Gras - P 2012

The actor and activist is opening a chain of quality food stores in his native New Orleans, where fresh products remain in short supply even six years after Hurricane Katrina hit.

Treme star Wendell Pierce is an in-demand actor (he plays trombone man Antoine Baptiste on the HBO show), a man of the stage (currently he’s producing the Broadway run of last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park), an activist and now a grocer.

As the new proprietor of Sterling Farms supermarket, based in the outskirts of New Orleans, and Sterling Express convenience stores, he and two partners are bringing quality food and fresh products at reasonable prices to an area that’s seen a dearth of accessible supermarkets ever since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. In the storm’s wake, corner stores overcharging already-strapped locals have been gouging communities making it even more difficult to recover from a sluggish economy.

Today, New Orleans residents -- only 58 percent of which have cars -- have to travel an average of three miles to reach their closest market. For Pierce, who grew up in New Orleans Pontchartrain Park, he’s made it his mission to stem the cycle of poverty, first by backing an economic initiative to redevelop the neighborhood where he grew up and now by starting Sterling, which has plans to expand to four stores by the end of the year.

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It’s just the latest example of art imitating life for this veteran of the screen, both big and small, and Pierce wouldn’t have it any other way, as he explained to The Hollywood Reporter in a recent interview.

The Hollywood Reporter: First things first, where does your supermarket know-how come from and how was this idea conceived? 

Wendell Pierce: One of my partners, James Hatchett, has been in the supermarket business for almost three decades now in Chicago. He came down to New Orleans after Katrina as part of a food initiative to help people start stores. He heeded the call. And my other partner Troy Henry, who I’ve known since I was a kid, he’s the businessman. … As for the idea, Troy had run for the mayor’s office and came in second, so afterwards I said, "Besides politics, there are ways to really have an impact." There was an iconic store in New Orleans that was at the heart of the African American community for decades, Circle Food Store, which still, to this day, has not reopened. And I thought we should reopen Circle Food Store. That would mean so much more than any political statement. It would say, truly the community is back. We realized we were all on the same page and Sterling Farms was created. .. I've always heard the saying, in troubled times always invest in food because that's the one thing that people can never do without. And there's truth and reality to that.

THR: Your first store in Marrero, Louisiana is about 10 miles from New Orleans city center and the lower ninth ward, how did you decide on a location?

Pierce: The research had shown that New Orleans was one of the biggest food deserts, so you start to look at the number in the population and the lack of services, and there's some places that traditionally we knew about, being New Oreleanians. We knew that the lower ninth ward for twenty years hasn't had a decent grocery store. So we were just looking at different area when a location presented itself on the west bank in Marrero.

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THR: How many stored are you planning on opening?

Pierce: We have two divisions -- a convenience store division, which is Sterling Express, and Sterling Farms are the grocery stores. We hope to have by the end of the year four Sterling Express stores and two Sterling Farms stores. And we have opportunities, we've been contacted by Pensacola, Florida and we're entertaining some possibilities there. But we wanted to make sure that we got the stores up and running and all the kinks worked out before we break into other markets.

THR: One Sterling Express is already open, how has the response been so far?

Pierce: What we're finding is that having access to fresh fruit and vegetables instead of a candy bar, people buy it. In our first convenience store, husbands are being sent to buy milk and eggs because of the gouging that happens at these fly-by-night corner stores that know that they don't have any competition. People are actually grabbing a banana, an orange, an apple, a salad as an impulse buy. We give them the decent price and the product where these communities are only covered with fast food and choices that aren't as nutritious. That's what people are going to take advantage of. … Underserved communities are nothing but pent-up demand and we're choosing to mine the wealth that is there, that is untouched. It's a great opportunity to do well and do good.

THR: One would think that greed trumps all and even in the wake of Katrina, there’s money to be made, but the big chains seem to have taken a wait-and-see approach when it comes to New Orleans….

Pierce: I think that's across the board, not unique just to New Orleans. We've gotten away from true capitalism. We feel as though there's this finite amount of wealth and I have to do everything possible to make sure I keep mine and exclude others. Where the true American aesthetic has always been, give people access to education, to opportunity and then ideas will come -- entrepreneurship happens, growth happens and wealth grows. … So I'm basically going back to classic American entrepreneurship. Filling a void, meeting a need and bringing the product to where there's demand. For whatever reason, social, political, naiveté, American industry looks at underserved communities and says, “I don't want to go there, I don't want to deal with the problems, I don't think it's valuable, those people don't want my product, I don't think it's an opportunity to make money." But that there are people, like Magic Johnson is a perfect example, who have shown that you can. Magic Johnson said a long time ago, 'Black people in Harlem will buy $5 cups of coffee,' and his Starbucks is one of the most successful franchises in New York. So he's someone who has set the tempo. He's inspired me.

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THR: Your family home was flooded by 14 feet of water, what’s happened to the house and the neighborhood?

Pierce: It was some of the deepest flooding in New Orleans and we lost everything. Pontchartrain Park was a historic neighborhood -- it was the first place where, during the ugly days of Jim Crow and segregation, African Americans could purchase a home after World War II. So my father came back from the war and bought the home 50 years ago. In the golden years, my father, my mother and their neighbors saw their lives destroyed and that's when I realized it was on my generation to make sure that the neighborhood survived, so we put together a development corporation and negotiated with the government to get the properties that were sold back by folks who had given up and build solar geothermal affordable homes. We’ve had over 300 people pre-qualified and about 20 closings this month so the neighborhood is coming back. … One day years from now, I always imagined a kid who comes up to me and says, “Mr. Pierce, in New Orleans’ darkest days, what did you do?” And I want to have an answer and be able to say, “Here it is -- let's go to Pontchartrain Park, let's go to these stores and see what I tried to do to help rebuild the city that I love. Like one of the characters in Treme says, “I just want my city back.”

THR: With Treme and The Wire, which you also co-starred in, do you see the impact these shows have on the local community?

Pierce: Absolutely. I'll say to some of the club owners here, "Oh we ruined your club" because there's a pilgrimage to Bullets, one of the clubs we feature in the show and to Frenchmen street which had always been a local haunt. From music to the restaurants… I was stopped at Jazz Fest one year by a woman who said, "We saw Treme, bought a ticket and came to New Orleans." There's a sense of people who don't know much about New Orleans and are taking their own little adventure through the eyes of some of the characters and the things they've see. At the same time, there are Treme watch parties all over the city and for those watching what happened two three years ago, it's almost therapeutic seeing how we struggled with recovery -- it gives you that moment to collectively say, "OK, that's what we went through and that's where we're going." We went through this tragedy and our city was destroyed by this Federal Flood, as I called it -- how we recover from it will be a template for how the country recovers and so we still have a long way to go.

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THR: And The Wire?

Pierce: The Wire is being studied at Harvard, Berkeley and Dartmouth. There are actual courses about the dysfunction of the urban institution and the loss of the individual in that -- all the themes that were part of The Wire and that's the thing I have to give to David Simon, he's very good at taking this medium of television and actually saying something of great important about who we are as a society. Even beyond The Wire being studied in academia, there’s the work of [co-star] Sonja Sohn who started a wonderful group called ReWired For Change, which helps incarcerated folks back into society, assists single mothers and helps tutor kids in the Baltimore area. So I would say that Sonja and I have gone one step further than what our roles were in The Wire and on Treme and say, “Listen -- take this lesson that we're trying to show on television and put in real life.”

THR: You were recently a guest at the White House State Dinner. What do you say to the President in that kind of setting?

Pierce: It was very exciting. I was asked by [journalist] Gwen Ifill to escort her and it was a real honor to be there in person to thank the president for everything he's doing for New Orleans. And not just the President, but cabinet members and different senators that were there. I got to thank them for their services, which are greatly appreciated. … You usually kind of give lip service to your patriotism, but it was one of those times, a moment that I felt myself swollen with pride. I will not soon forget it.

THR: Did President Obama say anything profound or particularly impactful to you?

Pierce: The President is a big fan of The Wire and also watches Treme so when he saw me, he says, "How's the trombone playing?"

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin