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The ‘Whole Food’ Picture

Local food economy flourishes with help of Whole Foods, Meijer and
Eastern Market
By Nicole Rupersburg
Pages 48-50

When a national grocery chain opens in a city, it might not sound significant. But the recent opening of Whole Foods, followed shortly by the opening of Meijer, speaks volumes about the growth under way in Detroit. Considering many national retailers had all but left Detroit for dead, a summer of two major openings reflects the potential and opportunity in Detroit’s growing food industry.

Whole Foods opened in Midtown in June with 94 employees, 70 percent of which were Detroit residents. Even with the fanfare and long lines on opening day, the new store is “exceeding (their) wildest expectations,” according to Whole Foods Market Co-CEO Walter Robb.

In fact, strong sales have enabled them to hire more people and promote many of their part-timers to full-time work, according to Whole Foods Market Community Liaison Amanda Musilli.

“Detroiters are supporting our team members and the store, and it has become a gathering place for many folks. As a result, we’ve hired more team members than we originally expected and have already promoted many of our newest team members,” Whole Foods Store Team Leader Larry Austin added.

Just a few weeks after Whole Foods opened its doors, Detroit’s first Meijer store opened on July 25 at the new 325,000-square-foot Gateway Marketplace development at 8 Mile Road and Woodward. The Michigan-based grocer/supercenter chain has been in discussions to open this $20 million location since at least 2008. Now open, the store employs roughly 500 people with a majority being Detroit residents.

Meijer’s opening is the first supercenter of its kind in the city and marks a transformational change along the oftmaligned 8 Mile corridor. It is also the only full-service grocer along the corridor.

“We have also purchased the site of the former Redford High School with the hope of building another Meijer store in the future,” said Frank Guglielmi, Meijer’s director of public relations. “We also continue to look at other sites within the city that may be appropriate locations for a Meijer store in the coming years.”

The stores’ openings are the latest developments in food’s emergence as a critical part of Detroit’s economic revitalization. From the growing chorus of independent food startups that began to rise in 2009 to the ever-expanding demand for local foods and Detroit’s singularly unique urban farming opportunities, it all comes down to one thing – food. And, more specifically, how Detroit’s local food economy is helping shape a new Detroit.

In 2006, the Eastern Market Corporation was formed to oversee the century-old public market. Since then, the market has seen tremendous growth, from empty warehouses renovated into lofts and art galleries to an explosion of artisan food businesses and maker spaces. But the market itself has also changed, expanding its farmers market hours to include Tuesdays in the summer, a host of different local food-oriented events throughout the year, and embracing and promoting local food producers.

“Economic development people are finally starting to see food as a viable economic business,” said Randall Fogelman, vice president of business development for Eastern Market Corporation. “Before it was education and medicine, and before that automotive and manufacturing. People weren’t paying attention to food … but food applies to everyone from low scale to high scale, and not a lot of industries support that kind of range.”

Detroit Food Goes Well Beyond Retail

That footprint stretches well beyond just supermarkets and food entrepreneurs. There’s also a combination of a strong food processing and manufacturing agricultural presence, and ethnic food markets that are creating a unique growth environment in Detroit. The region’s strategic assets provide the basis for a food cluster, including a food processing base, warehousing and distribution network, incubator space, and available retail and food services.

“You’re seeing a lot more of the local products in grocery stores … In Whole Foods, there’s something like 40 or 50 local products, and a good number of those are actually Detroit-based companies,” said Mimi Pledl, business development manager at the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC).

“When I look at it from a county or regional aspect, we’re able to marketthose companies, and we’re able to make connections between various companies that would not have otherwise been able to connect with one another, which is creating more business opportunities within the Southeast Michigan region,” Kenyetta Hairston-Bridges, business retention manager at the DEGC, added.

The DEGC has been paying attention to this groundswell of local food businesses and increasing interest in locally grown and locally made foods. In 2011, the DEGC launched the Detroit Food and Agriculture Business Network, which specifically works with food processors and distributors to remove impediments and help them access sustainable growth opportunities, touching on everything from assisting with food regulatory compliance (so these producers can sell at places like Whole Foods and Meijer) to finding vacant industrial buildings that can be used for production and distribution.

It serves as a single resource for food producers to access all of the information they need, answer all of the questions they have, and assist them with whatever they need help with.

As the Network grows – it’s also begun partnering with Macomb and Oakland counties – and is able to obtain more funding, they are able to issue grants and subsidies to food producers.

“We have a strong history of blue chip processors here but a lot has left the region,” Hairston-Bridges said. “(Then) these specialty food processors emerged, (and this model) still offers an entry point for new entrepreneurs.”

Nicole Rupersburg is a metro Detroit freelance writer.