Whole Foods plans to replicate Detroit success in Englewood

Both areas fight image problems when it comes to retail

November 13, 2013

Flickr/SchuminWeb
Some say cheaper options are available at Whole Foods, you just have to look.

Englewood and Detroit have a lot in common.

They are both shorthand for black and urban areas, but they also both include middle-class homeowners and a gritty vibrancy.

Still, they seemed unlikely candidates for the yuppie favorite Whole Foods Market, given high rates of food insecurity, unemployment and poverty.

Defying expectations, Whole Foods is the first national grocer to open in Detroit — a city of 700,000 — in years. The market is in Midtown, a bustling area near Wayne State University and a medical district, but nearby firebombed homes wither on urban prairie.

At the end of a recent business day, the Detroit Whole Foods parking lot is packed. Inside, customers of all ages and racial backgrounds stroll the aisles.

“One thing that I like that the Whole Foods decor team did was really listen to the community about how they wanted the store to feel aesthetically,"  said Store Manager Larry Austin. "They wanted to make sure it felt like Detroit."

The 21,000-square-foot store teems with Detroit touches — vintage Motown records dangle from cash registers and cafe tables are made of car scraps. The store hosts classes on vegan nutrition and disc jockeys spin techno music.

"The people here are prideful," said Austin. "They want you to be real and they have expectations."

As the chain prepares to open a store at 63rd and Halsted, Englewood residents, movers and shakers can look to the Detroit store as an exmple of what to expect. 

For example, before ground even broke on the Detroit location, residents expressed concern about jobs and transparency. In response, Whole Foods partnered with local nonprofits to hold information sessions on the hiring procecss. Today, 65 percent of the employees are native Detroiters.

Jobs weren’t the only concern. Pricing was, too. Austin says the company listened.

“If you come to Whole Foods Market and you buy artisan cheeses and artisan olive oil, then yeah, your grocery bill is going go climb," Austin said. "But if you come and shop staples, you shop our groceries, you shop produce [...] you’ll see we got bagged apples right now for $2.99 a bag.”

Bus driver Eva Turner lives in Detroit and didn’t frequent Whole Foods until this store opened. She loads her cart with pita bread, snap peas, apples, chicken gizzards and hummus.

“You can find some good bargains," she said. "For instance, they had the chicken thighs for $1.29 a pound, which is a good deal 'cause if you go to a regular store, that’s what you’re going to pay but it’s kind of fresher here.” 

The Detroit Whole Foods offers about 150 local products, from granola to alkaline water.

Nailah Ellis owns the Detriot company Ellis Island Tropical Tea. She says her bold-red hibiscus tea is a family recipe passed down from her great-grandfather, who was the master chef for Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line. 

"I’m getting ready to also open a production facility in Detroit and once I get that open I’ll start creating more flavors and I’ll be able to produce more and take on more accounts," she said. "Whole Foods regional is looking at putting me in the Whole Foods Midwest region."

One of the players instrumental in gaining community credibility is holistic expert and Detroit native Versandra Kennebrew. Whole Foods offered free space to holistic providers, Kennebrew was one of them, and they hired her to conduct community outreach.

“The grand opening day of Whole Foods Market was a day in history for the company, said Kennebrew. "They sold more produce in one day on the grand opening day than than any store that opened in the history of Whole Foods Market."

Whole Foods officials won’t release store sales but they say the Detroit location has exceeded expectations.  

Like Englewood, the city’s reputation elicited sourness when Whole Foods announced its plans.

“People outside view our community [...] think oh you come here I’m going to get mugged," said Carolyn Miller of Ser Metro Detroit, one of the agencies that helped Whole Foods recruit local employees. "[They say] we’re just despair. We’re not. We have people who want to eat organic food."

Khalilah Gaston runs a community development corporation in a neighborhood just north of the Detroit Whole Foods that aims to fight a history of disinvestment. She says Whole Foods has become a model for other projects coming to the neighborhood. The expectation of giving back is higher.

Still, Whole Foods is not without its critics.

Urban farmer Greg Willerer is one of them. He owns a city farm dubbed Brother Nature several miles away from the new Whole Foods, one of many new urban farms in the area that provide fresh food to residents.

He gives Whole Foods props for its strategic campaign, but he questions the $4.2 million in tax incentives the company received from the city.

“There’s this climate that Whole Foods is coming into where a lot of public money is being given to major corporations and all of these amazing black-owned businesses and other businesses in the city don’t get that kind of help," Willerer said. "Yet we call that development when a corporation comes in and puts up this brilliantly flashy sexy-looking store."

Still, the age old adage retail attracts retail remains. A month after Whole Foods opened, the national chain Meijer cut the ribbon on its first Detroit store.

is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her on Google+ and Twitter.