There comes a time in just about every entrepreneur’s life when they have to reconcile with the vision they set for themselves and reality.
When Raphael Wright set out to open a supermarket in Detroit more than four years ago, he had his sights on competing with the suburban Walmarts, Krogers, and Meijers of the world. He reasoned that the ‘hood had just as much a right to access to healthy, fresh groceries that residents of more affluent communities had.
He would call it Us Food Market and open locations wherever they were needed, each serving as a neighborhood hub where residents could pick up healthy prepared meals and fresh produce, learn a new recipe on an accompanying app, and attend public events.
That vision is still in his sights, but following years of winding successes and setbacks, he’s scaled down that goal. Instead, he’s come to realize that competing with the big boxes is a practice in futility.
Instead, he’s got his eyes on addressing the city’s long-standing food desert dilemma one corner store at a time, and he’s starting with an abandoned liquor store on the far eastside of Detroit. Construction has kicked off on what will be called Neighborhood Grocery, a 6,000-square-foot store that will provide fresh produce and meat, prepared meals, and everyday staples. He’s building a kitchen where chefs can pop-up to provide pre-made healthy meals, and even a co-working space. When it opens in 2022, it’ll likely be Detroit’s first Black-owned grocery store since 2014 when Metro Foodland closed its doors for good on the city’s west side. (The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network is working toward breaking ground on a similar venture, the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, sometime next year.) It’s not a big-box grocery store clone. Nor should it be.
“What I went into this with originally was I was very ignorant and I thought grocery was one way and in reality it was something totally different,” says Wright as he gives a tour of his current space, rebilled as Neighborhood Grocery situated on Manistique and Essex in Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. “I wanted what I saw, which was a big store, a big box. That’s what I thought that the community needed. In reality, it doesn’t matter how big something is if it’s not meeting community needs and in reality, smaller stores could support communities like this.”
Some 25 percent of Detroiters do not own or have access to a vehicle, something of a necessity for the big-box shopping experience. Parts of the city have welcomed or are gearing up for the opening of major chains (Whole Foods and regional chain Meijer have opened up within the city limits over the past several years and a scaled-down Target is headed for Midtown sometime in the next year or so). But those developments have been met with criticism from residents in many of the neighborhoods who are concerned that they don’t have a say in how their own neighborhoods are being developed.
So instead of trying to see his own vision of neighborhood big boxes come to fruition, Wright has turned to the community itself for feedback.
Neighborhood Grocery sits on a residential street in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood — a community that straddles the border with Grosse Pointe Park. The suburban border city is among several affluent communities colloquially referred to as the Pointes that boast some of the highest incomes in Michigan. They are flush with high-end grocery options. The Pointes have a long history of racially-charged policies to keep Detroiters out of their schools, parks, and their city limits entirely. Grosse Pointe Park has a median household income of $115,341 and a poverty rate of about 5.5 percent, compared to $30,894 in Detroit, with poverty hovering at about 35 percent.
Meanwhile, efforts to revitalize the historic Jefferson Chalmers district — once the eastside’s center for commercial and cultural life — have taken shape over the past few 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 hosted a series of community engagement meetings to identify community needs.
Among their findings, residents expressed a desire for coffee shops, more retail, and a grocery store with a focus on fresh food. Signs of revitalization along a stretch of Jefferson Avenue between Eastlawn and Alter — the district’s main thoroughfare — have already taken shape. Norma G’s, a Black-owned Caribbean restaurant opened in 2018, Yellow Light Coffee and Donuts drive-up cafe launched last year, and in 2019, the city’s only boutique bra shop relocated to the area — all already popular destinations for Detroiters.
While those developments have kickstarted some of the neighborhood’s revitalization efforts, they still do not address the dearth of grocery options. A 2017 study by the Detroit Food Policy Council revealed that about 30,000 Detroit residents do not have access to a full-line grocery store. In order to be considered a “full line” grocery store, the business must be at least 6,000 square feet, must provide a wide variety of fresh produce, fresh meat, fresh bread, fresh dairy and other groceries, and bring in a certain amount of annual revenue, says Alex B. Hill, one of the researchers who took part in the study.
That’s where Wright’s Neighborhood Grocery could make a dent in that statistic, even if on a micro level.
Wright has done his own research on community needs, including knocking on the doors of residents on the blocks surrounding the forthcoming store. He estimates Neighborhood Grocery’s available market to be around 18,000 people. Well over half of residents he’s spoken to over the past year say they rely on SNAP benefits. The general consensus was that residents wanted a safe space, where they wouldn’t have to worry about drug-dealing on the corner. Most were adamant that Wright not carry liquor. As far as how he stocked the shelves, the responses were mixed. Some were interested in healthier options, while others were a bit turned off by the connotation of a healthy food store and wanted to make sure that conveniences like fried chicken would be available in the prepared food section.
“They didn’t want some bougie ass store,” Wright says. “I don’t want to be the person to take the ‘higher moral ground’ and try 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 is continuing to conduct shelf-level research.
Wright says he has a goal of raising $400,000 and so far, he’s raised $250,000 through GoFundMe drive and an equity financing campaign he likens to a co-op model that people can invest in through his website. Investors will be entitled to a share of the profits, product discounts, and for those who have their own food businesses, their investment gives them prominent access to product placement on the store’s shelves. Among his investors, Wright says, is renowned Detroit artist Sheefy McFly.
For technical support, Wright has turned to city and public-private resources, including from Detroit’s Motor City Match program and the Michigan Good Food Fund, a $30 million public-private partnership that helps entrepreneurs working to increase access to healthy food.
The building is still undergoing construction. Wright says he had hoped that the grocery store would have opened by the end of 2021 but the pandemic has caused delays in construction. Under previous iterations, Wright had planned to purchase a building but for now, he’s leasing the building, with the option to purchase at a later date. This, he says, gives him the flexibility to make adjustments to his vision long-term.
As for his journey, Wright says he’s no longer focused on competing with those big boxes anymore. Supermarket chains, he says, have dominated the industry for more than a century, have billions of dollars at their disposal, and access to superior technology to continue its stronghold on how consumers shop.
His advantage, his connection with his community.
“My only competitive edge is culture and that’s a big competitive edge,” he says. “So why do you even compete? Just drive culture and change and shift the consciousness of the people that you want to save.”
This article was made possible through a collaborative storytelling effort with Tostada Magazine, a Detroit-based independent digital media organization that was founded on the premise that food journalism has the power to unify communities & preserve culture. Editor’s note: We’ve updated this story to clarify that Metro Foodland was a Black-owned grocery store in Detroit until 2014.
Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning Chicana journalist and founder and editor of Tostada Magazine, a Detroit-based digital food & culture journalism platform that centers stories and perspectives of immigrants and people of color.