Last year, Whole Foods built a new store in Detroit, to great acclaim and excitement. It deserved at least some of the attention: This was the first national chain to open a grocery store in Detroit -- often cited as a food desert -- in over a decade. But some of the hoopla came from the fact that the store seemed to confirm a satisfying, but simplistic, narrative, which goes something like this:
There are tons of people in urban food deserts yearning for fresh fruits and vegetables, but the blinkered (and maybe prejudiced) grocery executives don’t want these people as their customers. Cast off those blinkers and everyone wins: The grocery stores profit by meeting the demand for good food, the people switch from fast food to root-vegetable stews, and unicorns paint the sky with rainbows.
Whole Foods in Detroit looks like it proves the point that people are just waiting in food deserts to buy bundles of arugula. The store “is exceeding our wildest expectations,” Whole Foods Market Co-CEO Walter Robb said. But they set those expectations pretty low, with much smaller margins then they normally see. And Whole Foods only came in after the plunging population had stabilized and the city became a destination for a young, middle-class demographic.
“Suddenly cities are cool again, and people are moving back, and there’s lots of interest in getting grocery stores into urban areas,” said Alphonzo Cross, co-owner of Boxcar Grocer in Atlanta. “Nobody gave a shit 20 years ago.”
Nobody, that is, except for the people who were living in those neighborhoods. In 2013, as Whole Foods was opening, another store across town, the locally owned and operated Metro Foodland, was getting ready for its 30th year in business. It had opened in the midst of Detroit’s depopulation and found a way to thrive while offering healthy foods, year after year.