Commentary
11:02 am
Mon May 14, 2012

Commentary: Whole Foods in Detroit

This morning, ground was broken for a new Whole Foods Market in Detroit -- and plenty of people are excited about it.

Detroit is commonly said to be underserved in terms of supermarkets, and has even been called a “food desert,” because of its perceived lack of stores selling things like fresh local produce.  Whole Foods bills itself as the world’s largest natural and organic food chain, and they’ve never had a store in the city.

But there are also people who are skeptical about whether Whole Foods can be successful in what is mainly a very poor area -- and there is one sizable group which resents the incentives Whole Foods was given. They are the Detroit Independent Grocers Association, a group of 53 members who have no fewer than 83 grocery stores within the city limits. “Our members are the grocers who are truly committed to Detroit,” Eric Younan told me.

He is director of strategic initiatives for the Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce, the parent group of the grocers’ association. Most, but not all of these stores are Chaldean-owned. And they all take exception to the idea that Detroit is a food desert.

These are not party stores with a few cans of tuna fish on a shelf. To qualify for membership, Mr. Younan told me, they all have to have at least ten thousand square feet of floor space. Plus, dedicated sections for meat, dairy, produce and frozen foods. Nor, he said, do they gouge the poor on prices.

He admitted that huge chain stores can offer things like Campbell’s soup a little cheaper, since they buy in bulk. But otherwise they are competitive, and have found creative ways to survive in an economy where many customers live on government assistance. He said that tends to mean stores are usually busy for the first ten days of the month. But they are pretty slow the rest of the time, and that tends not to work for the economics of chain stores. “This is a scenario that has been played out time and time again in Detroit,” he said. “A name brand store is provided with significant tax incentives. The store eventually fails, and is ultimately purchased and run successfully by an independent grocer, usually Chaldean, without credits, abatements or incentives of any kind.”

What bothers the independent grocers is not that Whole Foods is trying to make it in Detroit. It is just that they have been given what Crain’s Detroit Business estimated was $4.2 million in state and local tax credits and incentives to do so.

Meanwhile, Mr. Younan said, his members serve the city every day, sometimes risking their lives. His own father was a butcher in a truly tough area. He also knows many Detroiters shop in the suburbs. But he thinks that’s largely due to wanting to briefly escape the blight and crime in their neighborhoods.

Whether Whole Foods can make it when the store opens a year from now is an open question. The company is betting on the revival of Midtown, and it is possible that it will be helped by the nearby Wayne State community. But the independent grocers who compete with it raise some interesting
points. And it seems to me that they, too, should be heard.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.