In November 2019, Courtney Vrablik saw an ad for a job opening at The Store, a free Nashville grocery store that was founded by country star Brad Paisley and his wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley and was set to open in March 2020. The celebrity couple had visited Santa Barbara, California, and taken their sons to volunteer at Unity Shoppe, a California nonprofit that serves low-income families, the elderly, the sick and the disabled. It was that experience that planted the seeds for The Store. “They thought it would be great to adapt it for the Nashville community,” Courtney explains. “And they were looking to hire an operations manager — like a grocery store manager essentially.”
A former pastry chef, Courtney was working in management at Amazon at the time, so she had both food and managerial experience. But she also had experience with needing to lean on food stamps and local pantries at one point in her life as well. “We had gone through some financial difficulties,” she shares. “I was a stay-at-home mom for about eight years and needed to utilize the SNAP program and food pantries. The combination of those things and the way The Store is set up and the fact that it’s sort of a revolutionary concept, I felt really compelled to at least apply and check it out and get involved.”
The Store, which is located on 12th Avenue South, opened on March 12, 2020, just nine days after tornadoes ripped through Middle Tennessee and a few days before the entire city was shut down due to COVID-19. Like so many local entities, The Store quickly adapted from its original model of in-store shopping to instead offering curbside pickup and delivery for the most at-risk populations. Today, The Store is an incredibly vital source for local families who are struggling to put food on the table.
Find out more about The Store from Courtney, who ultimately landed the role she saw advertised that day in November 2019. She’s now Executive Director of this very special local nonprofit. We first introduced you to her in our “Zero Heroes” series, and today, we’re thrilled to feature the complete interview. Meet our newest FACE of Nashville, Courtney Vrablik.
Describe how The Store operates.
The standard food pantry is usually organized in a way that you go in, you have to sign up for an appointment, and then they give you a box. Whatever is in the box is based on whatever they could obtain. What’s in the boxes is not necessarily logical — whatever comes in is what they can give out.
With The Store, it’s in-store shopping — we’re set up like a grocery store. So a family comes in, and after filling out the intake information, they grab a cart and walk up and down the aisles. They pick out the things they know that their family will eat and the things they are interested in. There is an entire section with restaurant- and grocery store-grade fresh produce that comes in weekly. That area is one-fourth to one-third of the items that we are offering because we are trying to promote those healthier choices. We are ordering things that are nutritionally dense, healthful, low-fat and that are going to be easy to combine and easy to prepare.
Also, everyone shopping is basically in the same boat. It’s a safe place to be. When I was a mom on food stamps and I was using either WIC or the EBT card in a grocery store, there were a number of times when people felt free to make comments about my purchases and what I was buying. It got to the point where I would grocery shop in the middle of the night because the anxiety of that scenario would get so overwhelming. And if you were shopping with your kids, it was just so mortifying. People feel free to make judgment calls on other people’s decisions, and it doesn’t make anything better.
Where does The Store source its food from?
We are fortunate in that we are able to pair with Sysco and their branch of FreshPoint, which distributes to all the major grocery stores, universities and restaurants. So what we get is what everyone else gets. It’s not the late stuff or the moldy stuff.
We also work with Second Harvest. They have been critical to what we have been doing, but obviously the demand on them has been intense. We have also worked with local farmers who want to donate to us instead of selling at the farmers market, and distributors that want to make sure their bread isn’t just sitting in a warehouse and is getting moved quickly. And then companies whose demand is different now because of COVID, but they want to make sure their employees are still working and the food is still getting out and not going to waste. So it’s been a combination up and down the logistics supply chain.
How many people do you all serve in an average week, and in what capacity?
On average, we are supplying about 550 households. We’re serving primarily Davidson County, and part of that is that the delivery program is based on the consistent dedication of our volunteer drivers who come and pick up twice a week, every week. That’s over 400 households right there. For the curbside, we have contact with about 275-280 families — some come weekly, some come bi-weekly, some only utilize us when their SNAP benefits have been exhausted. (NOTE: The Store is not currently offering in-store shopping due to COVID-19.)
What has been the most challenging part of the work you do?
It’s hard to say ‘no’ to anyone. When you get a request from a tower with 400 units asking if we can deliver to all of them, no, we’re not big enough to do that. So it’s hard to say ‘no’ to people. But we try to point them in the direction of another pantry that can pitch in and fill the gaps. One of the silver linings is the way that so many of us that are in the nonprofit world have been able to network and share resources and help each other out and fill in those gaps.
What has been the most rewarding part of the job?
Going home and being able to tell my kids what we’re doing … they remember what it was like when the pantry and fridge weren’t as full. Being able to let them know that the way they have helped out at home and generally being good kids has helped contribute to my ability to focus on different ways we can help other families because literally, these are our neighbors.
What’s your best advice?
I share a birthday with Eleanor Roosevelt (a personal hero), and one of my favorite quotes from her is simply this: “It’s not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself.” That’s one of my major principles of leadership.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Coffee, cheese, and my Chucks.
Thank you, Courtney. And thanks to Leila Grossman for the beautiful photos. To learn more about The Store, including how you can volunteer, visit thestore.org. And if you want to meet more local heroes and support their efforts, check out our entire “Zero Heroes” series HERE.
Meet more amazing local women who are doing great things in our community. Check out our FACES archives!