Grit Grocery, conceived in 2015 in Houston, Texas, was a farmer’s market on wheels, directly sourcing local unprocessed foods and selling them from a pop-up format—essentially a modified food truck, but without the kitchen, and with all sales on the street or sidewalk. I became Co-Founder in 2017, after my business partner purchased and modified a truck, tested the concept, and built a cold storage room in his garage.
My contribution was experience. A cultural anthropologist by training, my consulting work included research with grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants and CPG food brands for over a dozen years, with an LA-based strategy and design firm focused on food retail shopping experiences, branding, design innovation and prototyping stores. When I moved to Houston in 2016, and met someone interested in starting a potentially innovative food retail concept, I was intrigued. My consulting experience suggested that Grit would never work, because I knew how high the barriers were to build a supply chain and develop operations from nothing in the grocery business, especially without experience or infrastructure.
But from the customer’s perspective, I enjoyed the Grit Grocery shopping experience and the brand. And after a dozen years as a consultant, I felt like it was a good moment to stop observing and offering insights, and start participating more. I had learned a lot from my years of interviews, strategy workshops and store visits, but wanted to get in the middle of something new. It felt like the right moment to take a risk and explore a new world.
So, after modest crowdfunding success—relatively speaking in startup terms—Grit Grocery launched in Spring of 2018 with $75,000. Our small team consisted of my business partner and myself, a third co-Founder who had just moved away to Manhattan, and two sales people for the truck. Shortly after launching, we brought on another co-Founder to work on social media and marketing. Our process began with building the actual business: renting a warehouse space, constructing cold rooms, learning to drive the truck, gaining competency in produce quality assurance, and many other skills that ethnographic training and research experience does not teach you.
The experience was alternately invigorating and deeply frustrating. Seemingly simple tasks could require weeks of preparation and protocol development; like developing and communicating quality control standards for everything from cookies that were quick to crumble, to surprisingly resilient limes. At other moments, new experiments required more of a cavalier Texas attitude, something my Midwestern sensibilities often struggled with: Can we really set up sales on this street? And sell raw meat? Am I even legally allowed to drive this big truck?
Based on an ambitious entrepreneurial vision of buying many trucks, hundreds hopefully, we launched a campaign to find investors—which is what it means to be a “startup.” It’s not about building a company, as much as it is about telling a story, in order to fund the vision and begin building a company (and then selling the company, or parts of it). That startup story gets told, perhaps hundreds of times, for many different audiences, as a “pitch.”
Our Pitch varied in form, format and content, depending on the audience and their imagined expectations. There were pitch competitions and startup incubator interviews, social media post pitches, and face-to-face sit-down meetings. For every pitch expert complaining we hadn’t addressed supply chain solutions, another complained that we hadn’t painted a picture of the target customer. Around and around we went, always on the verge of catching some big investors, always ready to discuss how some investor might be interested.
During this storytelling phase, one persistent question from investors stuck with me most: How does it scale? The question is deceptively simple. Structurally, startup stories operate at the intersection of a business vision (based on a credible opportunity) and some kind of insight into the market. These market insights are based on what has been learned or established, which can include a wide range of data inputs and analyses, including competitive analysis, borrowed models, industry trends, and/or sales data. It may also consider research, including ethnographic or qualitative insights.
What I found most glaringly absent in this process was this latter piece. But that doesn’t mean just including ethnographic views of customers and their behaviors in these stories. It also means observing and offering insights on internal culture and organizational behavior within the start-up. How and where the two meet may ultimately best define the right scale for a startup (or any other business).
LOOKING OUTWARD: INSIGHT OR NOISE?
In the course of figuring out what was going on at the Grit Grocery truck on a daily basis and possibly steering business strategy and vision, I started a research-like “game” for our team to navigate the uncertain terrain of consumer behavior patterns. I called it: “Insight or Noise?” Among a sea of data points gathered on a daily basis, many may carry broader significance. But especially when you’re starting up, and so many new customer faces arrive at the truck every day, how do you distinguish meaningful insights from behaviors that might be labeled “noise”? How could you determine which insights were worth following up on, or which sets of behaviors constitute valid patterns, and make operational changes accordingly? We would sit in the warehouse on many mornings and share stories from the night before at the truck and debate what was going on.
Case in point: after some discussion we started bottling orange juice in larger bottles, to see if we could charge more and build volume. The next day, one regular customer complained that our OJ bottles were now too large, and that as a couple, they couldn’t finish that much. The following day, another customer told us he appreciated the larger OJ size, because he didn’t want to have to restock every other day. We kept asking customers which they preferred, and why. No discernible pattern emerged, at least not one that could clearly inform decision-making.
In another instance, we attempted to discover how Grit fit into weekly shopping routines. We found that many of our assumptions were correct: customers enjoyed shopping for specialty items and some unexpected treats, while many of these same customers also talked about the regular items they consistently purchased, whether fresh squeezed juice, pasture raised eggs, or homemade hummus. So they sought out a balance of regular items and surprises. This insight brought us back to the format we had created: Isn’t this balance exactly how we wanted people to shop the truck? What would inspire them to spend more at the truck, or shop more often? In other words, was there a new insight here or did this merely support that customers understood our core value proposition?
In the end, my co-Founders mostly labeled my ethnographic stories “noise” and kept pushing for the agendas they felt were intuitive and “right” (to them). They had another story in mind. And in certain ways, they were right, assuming their story was a good startup story. But was their startup story true to reality? The “noise” of ethnography accumulates through listening and the art of noticing. However, these ethnographic stories often disrupt, or represent an impediment to the neat theories and financial projections of tidy startup pitches that paint a picture of what scales well.
LOOKING INWARD: SCALABILITY & COMPLEXITY
At the end of 2018, while Grit was taking a New Year’s break, I took the opportunity to assemble a year-end audit, which was influenced and shaped by my anthropological background. The main point of criticism, a surprise to no one at Grit really, was to alert us to growing complexity in our operations, marketing, food production, sourcing, supply chain, and communications. On one hand, this complexity made it possible to tell new stories about where Grit might grow. On the other hand, it made the overarching story—especially in terms of scalability—unclear.
At that time, the cloud that hung over Grit Grocery was funding, ideally through investment. We needed more cash, in order to buy more trucks and fund technology projects, hire talented people (who knew more than we did), and to grow and further demonstrate how our model might scale. At the same time, we struggled with how to best frame our story in ways that would attract investors. In most situations, we sought to describe ourselves as an industry disruptor, something innovative and game-changing; the kind of company, in short, with the potential to change how food gets bought and sold.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing posits ethnographic stories and investigations as counter to scale and scaling, because they interrupt rather than nest neatly. She defines scaling as “infinite expansion” (or its possibility) “without changing the research framework,” and recognizes the reach of this conceptual tool beyond science, and into the worlds of business, capitalism, and progress, generally. In her book on the circulation of matsutake mushrooms and their markets, she uses the ethnographic “arts of noticing” to share stories that fragment, rather than scale, and in doing so, has created an exciting and productive counter-narrative to what’s expected from a story about business and change. In other words, she does not share a narrative of boom and bust, or a hero narrative of how successful companies succeed wildly.
Tsing illuminates some of the challenges for scaling, telling stories about scale, and, ultimately, realizing scale. Perhaps Grit Grocery’s struggle to tell a scalable story is, in part, because this unique startup concept exists in and feeds off the spaces created by breakdowns and defects of another system not unlike the system Tsing writes about—of food retail, the traditional grocery store and its massive supply chain.
The physical and cultural space of Grit Grocery purposely challenged existing institutions of food retail and its built-in scalability. Instead of factory farms, Grit sourced from local family farms. Instead of massive consumer packaged goods (CPG) factories, Grit partnered with artisanal producers. Grit’s locations, while consistent on a weekly schedule, resulted from customized relationships in urban zones, such as downtown Houston, where building more traditional food retail boxes is cost-prohibitive.
And in other ways, Grit, as a system, was designed to respond to indeterminacy or emergent phenomenon. We developed a Grit Kitchen initially to manage produce that would have otherwise gone bad. Truck salespeople, while well-trained, encountered many novel situations in their intimate customer exchanges, and so we hired people who were passionate about the cause, so that they could respond to any situation in authentic ways. Even the Grit truck itself contained so many quirks and idiosyncrasies, it was hard to imagine how to reproduce it once, much less at scale.
Getting back to Tsing, she argues that within these kinds of broken systems, “unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves…everything is in flux,” and that, “indeterminacy, the unplanned nature of time, is frightening” (20).
But the theoretical story Tsing articulates is not the best way to frame a successful startup story for investors. It is not comforting. The startup pitch seeks to remove indeterminacy and uncertainty from the startup. Yet Tsing, and ethnography itself, often reminds us that humans are messy and don’t scale well. For Grit Grocery, finding opportunities in contexts other companies have passed over is less than reassuring.
With this challenge in mind, I think the greatest value of ethnography in this case was not looking out at customers, but looking in to the culture of Grit itself. Because while much of my ethnographic interest was in understanding shopping behaviors, looking at internal culture revealed and continually exposed complexity—to an increasingly defensive audience, and an organization stretched thin. If Grit Grocery was to make its way and thrive in a fragmented environment, any potential scalability needed to emerge from within. What I discovered was frequent and continual expansion of the company’s scope: trying new things, getting into new businesses, offering more products in more categories. Stretching ourselves thin, in a business that ultimately needed to thicken.
The critical eye of ethnography can scrutinize the problematic nature of a startup’s we-built-it-in-the-garage mythology. Removed too far from reality, startups often rely too heavily on initial visions. And when vision leads the way, insights and reality, including (and especially) ethnographic insight, tends to challenge (and sometimes support) that vision.
At the same time, the critical eye of ethnography can serve as a valuable tool for investors to evaluate start-up stories, helping determine whether these new ideas meet customer needs while also assessing whether their organizational cultures are a good fit to accomplish the challenge at-hand. Because it’s when the two are in conversation—customer needs and organizational culture aptitude—that new and unexpected opportunities for entrepreneurs become reality. And as such, ethnography should be considered a valuable tool in the startup world, for evaluating new ideas and generating them, too. Rather than looking to ethnography to validate or verify, its greater value is in guiding and inspiring a startup.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
A version of this paper was initially presented at the Society for Applied Anthropology conference in Portland, Oregon, March 19-23, 2019. Thank you to Ken Erickson—who organized the panel, titled, “When the Models Break Down What’s a Business Anthropologist to Do?”—and fellow panelists Jo Yung, Jason Eng, Dawn Rivers, and Maryann McCabe.