Another Idea To Save The A-rabs: Broaden Their Appeal

November 22, 2009|By Dan Rodricks

As stated here previously, I support a new deal for the a-rabs of Baltimore, so that this tradition of horse- and pony-drawn street vendors continues as part of the urban food-delivery system and as a tourist delight. Others think it's a failed business model with too many problems. I asked Jim Kucher, executive director of entrepreneurship programs at the University of Baltimore, for his thoughts. (The University of Baltimore chapter of Students in Free Enterprise has elected to take on this project.)

How would you approach a revival of the a-rab tradition and create a new and sustainable business model?

First, there needs to be a large enough group of customers clustered together in a way that the venture can reach. Second, those customers need to have the desire and ability to purchase. Finally, you need to develop a workable solution that brings something to those customers that they can't get elsewhere. In this particular case, the first and third factors are uncertain. The third factor, in particular, has been significantly impacted by some of the difficulties in stabling the ponies because it impacts the logistics of getting the goods to the customer efficiently. In the end, it's much more about how well the model works than how good the idea is, and this model is flawed in many ways.

Well, then what needs to be done?

I think this is a great opportunity for a public-private partnership where various governmental entities, some commercial interests and perhaps a venture philanthropist might be able to converge on the issue. But I'm not sure that sufficient interest can be rallied without somehow broadening the concept beyond where it is now, in order to captivate those who are not moved by the reality of food deserts, urban obesity, etc. I guess what I'm talking about is some form of enlightened self-interest here.

Sounds like you mean a-rabs for everyone, all classes of Baltimoreans.

The way a lot of us take possession of our food - get in our cars, drive to a market, load our baskets and go home to fill the larder - is a peculiarly American, suburban concept that is not viable in many different city settings. It's not solely an issue of class but of convenience and lifestyle. Middle-class folks from all across Baltimore, for instance, would probably like to use their cars a lot less. Maybe they do not have huge pantries and do not stock up on stuff at Costco. They may shop three or four times a week, planning out two or three meals in advance. A lot of their time may be spent commuting for their jobs - maybe they live in Federal Hill but they work in Washington. They may eat out more than at home. Evolving the a-rab concept could be a welcome acknowledgment for these communities that having a door-to-door food delivery service - a fruit and vegetable market on wheels - is simply better than journeying out to a faraway grocery in order to fit a suburban ideal. It's city living at its best: scaled differently, stocked differently, accessed differently. It's New York and its bodegas, not Dallas and its mega-malls.

A-rabbing is an old enterprise. What's needed when the effort is revivalist in nature?

The real and quite sobering question here is: Is this worth saving? There was a time and a place where this model worked. The reality may be that the time has passed, and that our modern, hectic lives, even in distressed neighborhoods, don't fit with this method for selling produce. On the other hand, local farmers' markets are a big thing right now. So perhaps it's a matter of redesigning the model.

What elements of a-rab tradition excite you from an entrepreneurial standpoint?

At its core, entrepreneurship is about economic independence. So any time folks can find a way to earn their own way, particularly when their other options are limited, we're thrilled and interested in helping. In addition, it's gratifying to help bring needed services into underserved areas.

You had a meeting with some of your students about this. What kind of reactions did you get?

They were enthusiastic and, of course, they brought up some tough questions. They raised issues like the ability to use electronic payment methods, accepting government assistance cards and the need to redesign the network of stables so that transit time is reduced - something closer to an efficient hub-and-spoke model. They also considered how weather impacts the business and how open the a-rab community would be to receiving coaching and technical business assistance. After all, they've been making a living at this for a long, long time - you have to respect that, even as you propose improvements.

So how should we be looking at this - something lost to modernity or something worth saving?

We need to change the conversation so that we don't just talk about food deserts, unhealthy food choices in some neighborhoods, and so on. Let's talk about the changing city, getting back to what it knows about shopping for food in purely local markets, having amazing culinary choices, and other benefits that spell out "city life." Let's talk about it as a "Land of Pleasant Living" thing - not a big problem to overcome or another reason why we should wring our hands and fret over the Baltimore of long ago.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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