We need better grocery stores in Detroit

My grocery store concept Neighborhood Grocery is a top-10 finalist in this year’s Comerica Hatch Detroit Competition where we have a chance to win a $50,000 cash prize. Thankful for this opportunity, we are using this platform to continue the conversation on how we will bring a just and equitable food system to the communities of Detroit.

Detroit is still one of the largest food insecure cities in America. Although much progress has been made, mainly due to an increase in food entrepreneurship opportunities in the city, there is more work to do. I see an inefficient grocery industry as one of the main causes for food insecurity in Detroit, and cities alike. Because grocery stores play a large role in a community’s survival, I began the journey to bring about a new and improved grocery store concept.

Local grocery stores in Detroit have failed our people for decades with their outdated models and poor food offerings. You will never see a suburban supermarket operating the way inner city markets do; spoiled meat and produce, stale pantry products, an expensive and limited supply of fresh foods, and nonexistent customer service or community engagement. Everything is fresher, more affordable, and readily available on the other side of the city border which is why over $200 million in grocery dollars leave Detroit every year.

The residents that shop within city limits are usually poor minorities that lack the ability to travel across 8 mile to shop at a Kroger or Meijer. These residents are left to pick through the thousands of questionable items in the hood’s supermarkets. What’s not spent in supermarkets (local or outside) will be spent in liquor stores, gas stations, and fast food establishments. Sadly, when it comes to nutritional value, much of the grocery store offerings in Detroit are no better than that of a liquor store, McDonalds, Popeyes, or a Coney Island. It’s just a bad space to be in to have to choose from such fringe food sources.

I think this is the best time to shed light on the quintessential customer in Detroit: the poor and working class single parent who receives SNAP benefits. When factoring in other conditions: being overworked and underpaid, on top of their limited food options, it is easy to see why so much of their money goes to cheap fast food or snacks. In addition to this, many of these parents are uneducated on proper nutrition which makes matters worse. This explains why 40% of Detroit households receive EBT benefits but much of this money gets spent in convenience stores or gas stations. There is a grocer/consumer disconnect, and the consequences are frightening.

If being disappointed by what you see in our community grocery stores isn’t enough, try navigating through the saturated fast food market and overly aggressive marketing of unhealthy fast food in poor black communities, particularly to poor black children. It’s so hard to resist! These corporations go at our kids as young as possible, creating sugar addicts who only think candy, chips, soda (called pop in Detroit), and other processed foods are not only the cool things to eat, but will be dependent on it, eventually leading to great health challenges.

photo credit: Reuters

Diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease are highest in African American communities, particularly poor ones. Back in the day, diseases like diabetes were only seen in older people. Now, diseases that traditionally were found in older populations are now plaguing the youth. As Pastor William Lamar of D.C. said, “We’re losing more people to the sweets than to the streets.” Food has been the number one killer in our communities for too long and it’s time for change, and that has to start in grocery.

photo cred: US News

Grocery stores are supposed to be a community’s food bank and food school. That bank should be filled with the best food that’s supposed to grow the community. That school is supposed to educate its community on what to eat to live, while strengthening a community’s heritage and culture. Today’s grocery stores are anything but that. Our current grocery stores aren’t anchoring communities the way they did in the past. Particularly in cities like Detroit, as intense social dynamics still play important parts in everyday life, a supermarket would play a key role in the health, economic, educational, and political processes of communities, but this simply isn’t happening.

Perhaps one of the most important factors to consider in this argument is the lack of representation in Detroit grocery. Since 2014, there are no black owned or black operated full service grocery stores in Detroit. Before that, there was only a hand full. People from other communities run our grocery industry which has been historically unfavorable to Detroiters because these operators extract wealth, provide poor employment opportunities, and make no investments in the communities they conduct business in. These entrepreneurs simply line their pockets from selling their bad food to, then go home with the proceeds. There’s none of us preparing our meals which has social and economic consequences.

All of the above inspired my journey to open a grocery store in my city. It’s time to save our communities from the continual health and wealth burdens hurting us while there is still time remaining. Our business model has an intentional social mission: do business in the neighborhoods, invest in the neighborhoods, become the neighborhoods. In essence, if Neighborhood Grocery opens a store on Mack Ave, Neighborhood Grocery becomes Mack Ave Grocery, offering only what the community wants, while educating the community on how to use food to live a productive, fun life. If Neighborhood Grocery opens a store on Joy Road, we will become Joy Road Grocery, planting ourselves and investing in the community. Furthermore, our mission is to maximize localized partnerships, stocking our shelves with as much local product as possible to lower costs to our business and our customers, while increasing the dollar multiplier in the city. Customers in our stores shouldn’t be the only ones shopping local. Our business must lead by example by working local. Most of all, Neighborhood Grocery is design for replication, meaning we can operate in any community in the city. We’ve acknowledged that every community in Detroit is in demand for a grocery store and we are destined to fill those voids.

Most notably, I’m estatic to announce my partnership with one of the most knowledgeable, innovative mind in grocery, Megan Burritt. Having close to a decade’s of experience as a grocer and recently becoming a Detroiter over a year ago, she started her own journey in opening a food market after seeing how food deprived so many communities were. Mutual acquaintances begged us to meet each other. We agreed, met, and after just one conversation decided to consolidate our minds, visions, passions and projects to form Neighborhood Grocery. Meg’s experience as a grocer, having worked at Raley’s in California for over 4 years before working in supply chain management at Blue Apron, and my entrepreneurial experience, particularly my experience in securing much of the resources to launching this grocery store concept before we met, and my connection to the community being a city leader, has made the perfect union between us. But we haven’t been working on this alone for we have many contributors: The FoodLab Detroit, The Michigan Good Food Fund, The Build Institute, the Center for Community Based Enterprises, and a host of others, including an amazing group of MBA students from the University of Michigan that spent weeks working on financial documents to help us navigate through this tough planning and development process.

We are more ready than ever to start doing this great work in Detroit. It’s time to redirect our community’s conversation on food and how important it is to our survival. Most of all, it’s time for businesses so vital to a community’s survival, like grocery stores, to start making the right investments in the people they serve. We need neighborhood leaders and anchoring businesses are the foundation. We’re working on our part. Stay tuned to see what we have up our sleeves.


Vote for Neighborhood Grocery in this year’s Comerica Hatch Detroit Competition to help us win $50,000

Also, follow us on social media:

Raphael Wright

Instagram — @fairo_rafa

Twitter — @fairo_rafa

Facebook — @fairorafa

LinkedIn — Raphael Wright

Megan Burritt

Instagram — @grocergirldetroit

Twitter — @misskeen

Facebook — Meg Burritt

LinkedIn — Megan Burritt

Neighborhood Grocery

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Facebook — @neighborhoodgrocery

Twitter — @neighborgrocery