Grocery store magnate Jeff Brown plans to announce his run for Philadelphia mayor on Wednesday, becoming the first non-politician to enter the race.
He’s the fifth Democrat to throw his hat into the ring. He teased his campaign logo and website via a tweet published Tuesday morning.
Best known for his Brown’s Super Stores collection of 12 ShopRites and Fresh Grocers throughout the Philadelphia area, Brown has essentially been soft-launching a mayoral campaign for well over a year. He’s been helping fundraise with a PAC, and kept up a staunch criticism of the soda tax.
Who is the man beyond the ShopRite logo, and what can we learn about his priorities from the way he runs his supermarket company?
Here’s what to know as Brown pivots from businesses executive to hopeful city executive.
Using grocery stores to give back
Brown, 58, is a fourth generation grocer who hails from the far Northeast. He has used his franchise to pilot a corporatized version of food justice.
A handful of stores under the Brown’s Chefs Market name are in historically underserved Philadelphia neighborhoods, like Parkside and Hunting Park, where there is limited access to affordable, healthy food options. Brown has hired hundreds of formerly incarcerated people to work in his stores and operates a business incubator out of his Eastwick ShopRite, offering entrepreneurs a chance to sell merchandise across the supermarket locations.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he cofounded the Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund, which provided $3,000 forgivable loans to over a thousand Pa. small businesses that struggled to access federal relief funding.
More recently, Brown has partnered with local Black-owned businesses to create pop-up retail spaces within his stores, including The Better Box, which has received national attention for Philly-fying Asian cuisine, and North Philly-based egg roll purveyor Rock and Rolls.
“When I look out at our situation in Philadelphia, I think we’re plagued with a very stubborn poverty and low minority participation in business,” Brown told The Inquirer in 2021. “I think that if we’re all going to live here, we need to address that.”
During a conversation with Derrick Cain of Resolve Philly this summer, Brown noted most of his stores are located near gun violence hotspots, so he feels a proximity to the crisis after one of his employees was shot at a bus stop. At the start of 2021, Brown donated gift cards to a successful gun buyback event sponsored by City Council.
Pushed into politics by the soda tax?
If there’s one thing the casual Philly shopper knows about Brown, is that he’s a staunch opponent of the soda tax. He even went so far as to claim the signature project of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration forced him to shutter a West Philly ShopRite.
For a refresher: The tax is a 1.5% levy on sugary beverages. It has generated over $300 million in revenue, with the money designated to fund things like universal pre-k and the Rebuild program, which has been gradually renovating playgrounds, pools and recreation centers around Philadelphia.
Brown was upset about the tax not because it made soda more expensive, but because he thought it was leading shoppers to just shift their grocery hauls to stores outside the city. As evidence, he pointed to numbers from that Haverford Avenue location — it saw an overall sales drop after the tax was enacted, but sweet beverages made up just 5% of the decline.
Brown claimed the decision to close the store wasn’t political, but the back and forth between him and Kenney did set the stage for Brown’s appraisal of city leadership.
“I’m not shy about the fact that I think we need a different mayor,” he said in 2019.
Public records as of mid-November do not show Brown’s formal campaign committee. But the Philly Progress PAC — which Brown has helped with fundraising in the past — took in $934,000 during 2021, due in part to several donations that run well over the city’s individual campaign contribution limits.
Should Philly Progress pivot to become the chief financial support of Brown’s mayoral campaign, it will be the most any mayoral candidate has raised to date. As of October, Rebecca Rhynhart’s campaign had the most cash on hand, around $769,000.