Detroit’s first black-owned grocery store reinvents access to food

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Neighborhood Grocery won’t compete with big box stores, but it doesn’t have to be.

There comes a time in the life of almost any entrepreneur when they have to come to terms with their vision and reality.

When Raphael Wright decided to open the first black-owned supermarket franchise in Detroit over four years ago, his goal was to compete with the Walmarts, Krogers and Meijers suburbs of the world. He felt that the “neighborhood had just as much right to access healthy, fresh groceries as residents of the wealthier communities.

He would call it Us Food Market and open locations where needed, each serving as a neighborhood hub where residents could shop for healthy ready meals and fresh produce, learn a new recipe on a companion app, and attend. public events.

That vision is still in his sights, but after years of success and winding setbacks, he has reduced that goal. Instead, he realized that competing with the big boxes is a futile practice.

Instead, he aims to solve the city’s long-standing food desert dilemma, one corner store at a time, and it begins with an abandoned liquor store in the far east of Detroit. Construction has started on what will be called Neighborhood Grocery, a 6,000 square foot store that will supply fresh produce and meat, ready meals and everyday staples. He builds a kitchen where chefs can sit to offer healthy, prepared meals and even a common workspace. When it opens in 2022, it will likely be Detroit’s first black-owned grocery store (the Detroit Black Community Food Safety Network is working on the grand opening of a similar business, the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, l ‘next year). This is not a big box grocery store clone. It shouldn’t be either.

“What I originally got started with was that I was very ignorant and I thought the grocery store was a way and in reality it was something totally different,” says Wright as it is touring its current space, renamed Neighborhood Grocery located on Manistique and Essex in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood of Detroit. “I wanted what I saw, which was a big store, a big box. This is what I thought the community needed. In reality, it doesn’t matter how big something if it does not meet the needs of the community and in reality, small stores could support communities like this.

Some 25 percent of Detroit residents do not own or have access to a vehicle, which is a necessity for the big box shopping experience. Parts of the city have welcomed or are preparing for the opening of large chains (Whole Foods and the regional chain Meijer have opened within the city limits in recent years and a small target is heading towards Midtown in the current. next year. or so). But these developments have been criticized by residents of many neighborhoods who fear they won’t have a say in how their own neighborhoods are developed.

So instead of trying to see his own vision of big neighborhood clubs come to fruition, Wright turned to the community itself for feedback.

Neighborhood Grocery is located on a residential street in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, a community that straddles the border with Grosse Pointe Park. The suburban border town is one of several affluent communities colloquially known as the Pointes, which are among Michigan’s highest earners. They are full of high-end grocery options. The Pointes have a long history of racist policies aimed at completely removing the people of Detroit from their schools, parks and their city limits. Grosse Pointe Park has a median household income of $ 115,341 and a poverty rate of around 5.5%, compared to $ 30,894 in Detroit, with poverty hovering around 35%.

Meanwhile, efforts to revitalize the historic Jefferson Chalmers – once the center of the Eastside’s commercial and cultural life – have taken shape in recent years. In 2020, Jefferson East Inc., in partnership with the East Jefferson Development Corporation, detailed more than $ 640 million in new and renovated projects for the neighborhood with its Jefferson-Chalmers Mainstreet Master Plan. The group organized a series of community engagement meetings to identify the needs of the community.

Among their findings, residents expressed a desire for cafes, more retail outlets and a grocery store with an emphasis on fresh foods. Signs of revitalization along a stretch of Jefferson Avenue between Eastlawn and Alter – the neighborhood’s main drag – have already taken shape. Norma G’s, a black-owned Caribbean restaurant opened in 2018, drive-thru Yellow Light Coffee and Donuts launched last year, and in 2019, the city’s only bra store relocated. in the region – all already popular destinations for Detroiters.

While these developments have kicked off some of the neighborhood revitalization efforts, they still don’t address the lack of grocery options. A 2017 study by the Detroit Food Policy Council found that approximately 30,000 Detroit residents do not have access to a full grocery store. To be considered a “full line” grocery store, the business must be at least 6,000 square feet in size, must supply a wide variety of fresh produce, fresh meat, fresh bread, fresh dairy products. and other groceries, and bring in a certain amount of annual income, says Alex B. Hill, one of the researchers who participated in the study.

This is where Wright’s Neighborhood Grocery could dent that statistic, albeit at a micro level.

Wright did his own research on the needs of the community, including knocking on the doors of residents of the blocks surrounding the next store. He estimates that Neighborhood Grocery’s available market is approximately 18,000 people. More than half of the residents he has spoken to in the past year say they rely on SNAP benefits. The general consensus was that residents wanted a safe space, where they didn’t have to worry about drug trafficking around the corner. Most were adamant that Wright did not carry alcohol. When it comes to how he stocked the shelves, responses have been mixed. Some were interested in healthier options, while others were a bit put off by the connotation of a healthy food store and wanted to ensure that amenities like fried chicken were available in the prepared foods section.

“They didn’t want a candle butt store,” Wright says. “I don’t want to be the person who takes the ‘higher moral ground’ and tries to always push veganism, or say don’t eat meat, don’t eat fried food. It’s a grocery store, you have to offer something for everyone.

As such, Wright continues to conduct research at the shelf level.

Wright says he aims to raise $ 400,000 and so far he has raised $ 250,000 through GoFundMe and an equity fundraising campaign which he likens to a co-op model that people can invest in. through its website. Investors will be entitled to a share of the profits, product discounts and, for those who have their own food business, their investment gives them privileged access to product placement on the store shelves. Among its investors, according to Wright, is renowned Detroit artist Sheefy McFly.

For technical support, Wright turned to municipal and public-private resources, including Detroit’s Motor City Match program and the Michigan Good Food Fund, a $ 30 million public-private partnership that helps entrepreneurs improve access to healthy food.

The building is still under construction. Wright says he had hoped the grocery store would open by the end of 2021, but the pandemic has resulted in construction delays. In previous iterations, Wright had planned to buy a building, but for now he is leasing the building, with the option to buy at a later date. This, he says, gives him the flexibility to make adjustments to his long-term vision.

As for his background, Wright says he’s no longer focused on competing with those big boxes. Supermarket chains, he says, have dominated the industry for more than a century, boast billions of dollars, and have access to superior technology to maintain their dominance over how consumers shop.

Its advantage, its link with its community.

“My only competitive advantage is culture and that’s a great competitive advantage,” he says. “So why are you even competing? You just have to lead the culture and the change and change the consciousness of the people you want to save. “

This article was made possible through a storytelling effort in collaboration with Tostada Magazine, an independent, Detroit-based digital media organization that was founded on the premise that food journalism has the power to unify communities and preserve the culture.

Serena Maria Daniels was a 2017-2018 member of Next City for Fair Cities. Based in Detroit, his reporting on the intersection of culture, politics and entrepreneurship can be found in Reuters, NPR’s The Salt and Latino USA, Extra Crispy (a Time publication), Lucky Peach, Chicago Tribune and others. She holds a BA in Journalism from California State University, Northridge.

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