Olympia Auset: A Founder’s Journey to End Food Apartheid in Los Angeles
To anyone who knows her or has read about her, Olympia Auset is a memorable person. In 2016, she started SÜPRMARKT, the first organic produce pop-up in South Los Angeles, on a shoestring budget of about $100.
She was 26, she had no finance background, few physical resources, and no investors, but she had the determination to tackle a serious and pervasive problem.
A South LA native, Olympia grew up in an area with very few grocery stores that was also over-served by liquor stores and fast food chains— something known as a “food desert”— a familiar narrative in the U.S. for people of color.
“Living in South Central makes you three times as likely to die from a preventable disease,” said Olympia. “That’s mainly because there are 1.3 million people in South Central, and only 60 grocery stores.”
“African Americans also lead all other ethnic groups in their likelihood to die from a preventable disease. This directly correlates with their likelihood to live in food deserts across the U.S.”
Having lost loved ones to illnesses caused by limited access to nutrition, and not wanting to lose more, Olympia and a handful of friends began sourcing organic produce and selling it at affordable prices in South LA’s Leimert Park.
“When we started, we started with less than a hundred bucks. We didn’t have a table, a tent, chairs. One of my childhood friends would bring us a table every Sunday in order for us to be able to set up and sell our produce. It was a labor of love.”
Four years later, Olympia has sold over 70,000 pounds of produce from her pop-up and is now set to open the first ever organic grocery in South Central, a mission that’s been widely publicized by the LA Times, Harper’s Bazaar, LA Eater, KTLA, and PBS’ Broken Bread with host Roy Choi.
So how exactly did she get here?
Finding a Market Gap
As I chat with Olympia, she tells me the idea for SÜPRMARKT arose when she was cooking vegan meals and hanging out with her friends.
“I was teaching them how to eat better, and then we would watch documentaries, try to figure out how to fix the world, and work on projects and stuff. The problem I was running into is that there was always the stumbling block of, ‘This [produce] is too far away,’ for one friend, or, ‘this [produce] is too expensive,’ for the other.”
“We were trying to budget for one meal each week, and those things would keep coming up, plus I was traveling two hours by bus to get organic fruits and vegetables, so I was like, ‘Maybe we should start a grocery store.’”
At the time, Olympia was also working for a raw food manufacturer. When she went with him to the wholesalers to buy produce, she noticed the discounted prices of ‘seconds’ (blemished or bruised, but otherwise perfectly good produce that doesn’t make it to supermarket shelves).
“It was heartbreaking to me, because I was like, ‘Oh my God. This whole thing of apples is $20. Four of us could put $5 in, and we wouldn’t have to be paying a dollar an apple.”
“I think when that happened, I realized this was something we could actually do.”
Initially, Olympia ran SÜPRMARKT by sourcing and selling these seconds. An important distinguisher is that SÜPRMARKT was not only affordable—it accepted (and still accepts) food stamps.
“We sold out the first day even though we were so barebones, it was so bootleg!” Olympia laughed. “There wasn’t anything like that in the area. People were so appreciative we were there.”
The Power of Authenticity & Self-Promotion
Despite the warm reception, SÜPRMARKT’s first two years were challenging.
“There were times when I couldn’t pay my rent,” said Olympia. “I would be doing random Craigslist things like cleaning houses. But I was committed. I had committed to myself to stop working 9-to-5 jobs. I committed to myself that what I wanted to create in the world was more important than my comfort. I think it’s only when you’re really willing to take it there that you get results.”
A journalism major and graduate of Howard University, she began using her experience in PR to spread awareness. She wrote press releases and sent them wherever she could.
“Our first big media break was from an AfroPunk article. I woke up one morning and we were on all these random Instagram accounts. There were a bunch of memes about us. It was pretty crazy.”
“It’s been a lot of word of mouth and internet articles,” Olympia added. “The more we do for people, the more people do for us, the stronger our community gets.”
Then, as SÜPRMARKT gained traction, Mr. Wisdom, the area’s only vegetarian eatery for 30 years, closed.
“Mr. Wisdom was the only place nearby you could go to get a veggie burger or a wheatgrass shot,” said Olympia.
“In America, you have a lot of racist redlining and zoning practices. Supermarket chains establish harmful lease terms saying that if they close, no other grocery store can set up in that location again for 20 or 30 years. It’s one of the reasons why food deserts exist.”
“When Nipsey Hussle, a beloved rapper and local community activist passed, we felt like we owed it to Mr. Wisdom, Nipsey, and the community to keep the space alive.”
Olympia launched a thoughtful and personalized crowdfunding campaign on IndieGogo and boosted her press efforts. SÜPRMARKT have since purchased Mr. Wisdom’s old location, but are still raising funds to open their doors.
To further her mission and bring people together, Olympia also began creating events around South LA that were both genuine and impactful, including the first ever vegan food festival in South Central, SÜPRFEST, which featured yoga and wellness activities, as well as vegan celebrity speakers. Importantly, the event featured only Black and Brown vegan vendors from South LA, putting the neighborhood in touch with business owners who promoted health in their community, and vice versa.
The food was either discounted or free, and to increase attendance and exposure, the festival ran adjacent to the Taste of Soul Festival, which draws around 50,000 attendees yearly.
A Recipe for Success
Seeking additional support, Olympia also applied to a South LA-based startup accelerator called Grid110, who champion women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color. Aside from providing extra resources and mentorship, Grid110 offered perks and discounts for helpful financial services, including a business credit card from Brex.
“I started using Brex because we’re just now starting to make our first hires. So I needed a way to be able to give new employees company cards,” she said.
“As mentioned, SÜPRMARKT started out really bare bones. Our first two years were struggle years. So now that we’re growing into more of an official organization and actually starting to hire people, it’s really helpful that I can give someone a credit card they can use. I can set a limit. And they can buy things, and I don’t have to be in the weeds all the time. That’s really important to me.”
“There’s also another reason,” added Olympia. “Which is that when you start getting into the world of business and nonprofits, there’s a lot of barriers that exist financially when it comes to who’s allowed capital and who isn’t. We weren’t ‘set up in life’ in that way. We don’t have business credit established yet [to help us gain more capital], so Brex is one of our methods for achieving that.”
With the help of crowdfunding, the community, the media, Grid110, and Brex, Olympia is set to achieve her dream of opening South LA’s first organic market later this year.
But she also attributes her success to her determination to fulfill a genuine need.
“Can you imagine always having to leave your neighborhood to get what you need, regardless of your economic status?” asked Olympia.
—It’s a concept Olympia shares with most of the people she speaks to, an idea she wants them to deeply understand.
“This setup sends a message that people in these neighborhoods don’t deserve fresh food.”
“There were three years where I really didn’t have any money,” she explained. “Every time I got on the bus I had to ask drivers for a ride. There were so many times I ran out of money at the grocery register and I wished someone could cover the banana I had to put back. I wished someone cared.”
“But we don’t have that infrastructure of compassion set up in our society, because we’re scared of each other. We’re scared to connect. So that’s how SÜPRMARKT started. We’re trying to solve that.”
SÜPRMARKT is currently raising funds to open the first ever organic grocery store in South Central Los Angeles through their nonprofit, SÜPRSEED. Donate here to help Olympia on her mission. Every bit counts, and all donations are welcome.