The eastside strip mall in which Charles Walker opened his grocery store in 2004 seemed like an ideal location. Among its neighbors was a Department of Human Services office that passed out food stamps to residents in the low-income area. The freshly remodeled plaza, which sat on the southwest corner of a busy intersection at Warren and Conner Roads near a Chrysler factory, also held several other government agencies and a popular flea market.
With a supermarket surrounded by businesses and agencies that would feed Walker's Sav-A-Lot customers, success seemed like a sure bet.
But forces outside of Walker's control almost immediately started working against him. Within several months, the flea market burned down and the DHS moved its food stamp office. Still, Walker held on, buoyed by the high volume intersection and nearby residential zones. Then the Chrysler plant cut shifts. Then the economy tanked. And the continuing blows proved to be too much to absorb.
Walker, who is African American, stepped away from the Sav-A-Lot in 2010. By then, he was one of the last black grocery store owners in the city, and when Metro Foodland on the west side shuttered in 2014, there would be none.
That's how it remains to this day: In Detroit, a major city that's 80 percent African American, there are no black-owned grocery stores.
"It's unbelievable, it really is," Walker says. "It's unbelievable that there aren't any additional stores."
How did we get to this point? And if the majority of the city's residents are black, but they don't own the stores, then who does? And why does it matter?
On one level, it's an economic issue. Grocery stores help drive local economies. The local economies thrive when stocked with business owners supporting and spending their money at other neighborhood businesses — developing a prosperous synergy. Grocery stores can be a neighborhood institution, and when a store's ownership and management hauls its profits to the suburbs, as is often the case in Detroit, the neighborhood economy loses an essential link.
"Businesses run by people living in the community brings a sense of empowerment and provides a vehicle for keeping money in the community, recirculating money, and creating community wealth, as opposed to extracting money and it going somewhere else," says Malik Yakini, the director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.
"You have vibrant local economies because of small stores, not big-box stores. When you have this hyper local economy, that's the way neighborhoods are built. You have store owners who make money then spend that money within a few blocks of their houses and businesses ... and it's a way of creating community resilience and wealth."
Most of Detroit's approximately 80 grocery stores are owned by Chaldeans, with some exceptions. In the heavily Latino Southwest Detroit, the Mexican-owned Honey Bee Market thrives, while chains like Whole Foods and Meijer are what they are — impersonal, corporate giants.
The problem with a lack of black-owned grocery stores in black neighborhoods becomes clearer when one considers a mom-and-pop store's ideal function in the community, then measures it against what we see in Detroit. Grocery stores are often a neighborhood anchor where people go to buy decent food. They're an employment center and involved in the community — think of the store that sponsors the local youth football team. It's a point of pride, and Honeybee in Southwest is a good example of how an independent grocery store should function.
"They're a meeting place where you see people who you go to church with, high school with, neighbors," Walker says. "It's a foundation in a lot of communities, and a place that other businesses will grow around because of traffic."
It's a different story in the largely Chaldean-owned stores (or those of any race or nationality — several sources interviewed for this story stressed this is a critique of the structure, not Chaldeans). Black people from the neighborhoods are almost universally shut out of management positions, limiting their opportunity to earn more and gain experience in the industry.
People we spoke with also say there's a general lack of respect in some stores, both in terms of interpersonal interaction, stores' cleanliness, and the product. Some of Detroit's supermarkets are notorious for relabeling expiration dates, selling low quality or spoiled products, and maintaining an unappealing environment, though Walker says some of the issues have been resolved in recent years.
According to reports, it's those kind of conditions that drive city residents to the burbs to shop. A 2012 Fair Food Network study, for example, found Detroiters spent an estimated $200 million on food in the suburbs, and shoppers cited the city stores' poor condition as motivation for doing so.
The arrangement is also about control. Yakini says ownership of neighborhood institutions like grocery stores is one of the things African American communities can do to protect themselves from institutional racism and improve their economies.
"That's necessary for our survival, because otherwise we will find ourselves in a situation where we are dependent on others for survival ... and communities that have control of their institutions have a better go at it than communities that don't," Yakini says.
It's an obvious problem, and there's a knee-jerk solution: Black people in Detroit should open more grocery stores. But with chains or other races and nationalities now owning all the city's supermarkets, and black people boxed out of management, it's exceedingly difficult for them to get the required experience and funding. Try walking into a bank and telling a loan officer you deserve a $5 million loan to open a grocery store with two years of experience stocking shelves.
"With grocery stores, or in any industry, you have to have some experience to be able to own one," Walker says. "We are working in grocery stores, but, especially at the independent stores, we're not in management positions, so no one understands the leadership part of it. We are stock clerks, cashiers, but the everyday running the business — we don't get that experience. We don't see the ins and outs of running it. Just the basic parts, the menial jobs."
Not that there were ever a lot of black-owned grocery stores from which more could grow. Their numbers peaked at 15 to 20 in the 1960s, according to estimates from various sources.
Lila Cabbil, founder of the Detroit People's Water Board, says the confluence of several trends led to the current situation. The city's population began leaving for the suburbs in the 1960s, and the major grocery stores followed. In general, people in the city started shopping more in the suburbs, especially when chains like Walmart and Meijer built "superstores" that promised groceries, pharmacies, housewares, and other shopping needs under one roof, Cabbil says.
That became an attractive option to an increasingly impoverished and less mobile population living in a city where basic needs typically available at neighborhood stores became more difficult to find. Some of the superstores even began offering shuttle services, which Cabbil says was one of the major forces that diverted shoppers from their neighborhood supermarket.
She also notes that Chaldean grocers have very successfully organized and even started the Detroit Independent Grocers, an association of Chaldean-owned stores. Its members can purchase products on a larger scale, so they can sell for cheaper than a solo African-American owner, Cabbil says. Beyond that, lending intuitions froze capital during the recession, which was, perhaps, the biggest recent obstacle.
In an ideal world, the ownership arrangement wouldn't be such an issue, but Detroit is so segregated that people of different cultures don't live in the same neighborhood, Cabbil says. Thus, we're led back to the local economy cycle.
"When you see an economic cycle that's holistic, you have people who benefit from providing goods and services, and people who are supporting goods and services, and they're collectively building an economically viable community together," Cabbil says. "If we weren't so segregated in Detroit, then that could work across cultures, but we're so segregated that it doesn't."
What it ultimately boils down to is an issue of power and an economic structure that's tilted against African-Americans, though that's not necessarily unique to the grocery store industry.
"There's a connectedness of the network that's in place that sustains itself, and so you have a clear pattern," Cabbil says. "When you look at something like construction or other trades and industries, you see the same thing as the grocery stores. Big picture, you have multiple sources that structurally exclude black people and doesn't allow there to be equitable opportunity, and the flourishment and development of businesses in black neighborhoods.
"It's a vicious cycle, and you really can't leave out the issue of race."
The people I spoke with say fixing the situation requires finding more African Americans who have the drive to open grocery stores, finding access to capital, and training more black people to run the businesses. (In that regard, Meijer and Whole Foods could be a positive because they hire African Americans to fill management positions.) The Fair Food Network also runs a "bodega bootcamp" to train people how to run stores, and groups like FoodLab Detroit also teach the basics the of food entrepreneurship and guide city residents through the process of launching a business.
But there may be a better way to distribute food, says FoodLab communications director Devita Davison. She points to the Farmer's Hand, a small fresh produce and food store in Corktown that buys from local farmers and producers, and is run by Rohani Foulkes and Kiki Louya, an African American woman. That model is better for the local economy in many ways. Davison also points to the success of some of the neighborhood bodegas in New York City, local CSAs, and food co-ops. She says large scale capitalism failed Detroit on so many levels, (see also: the auto industry) so perhaps Detroiters should be focusing their energies on new approaches.
"It's concerning that there is a lack of ownership of large grocery stores, but that opens the door for us to do something different in a new way," Davison says. "Should we really be replicating the same old models?"