Glimmers of recovery in Detroit retail scene

July 9, 2014

Source: The Packer
Author: Pamela Riemenschneider

DETROIT — Before I visited The Motor City, I had a visual of abandoned buildings and urban food deserts.

After I spent the day seeing stores and talking to motivated, energetic people committed to increasing fresh produce consumption, I have to admit their enthusiasm is contagious.

I was in town to talk with the Fair Food Network about its Double Up Food Bucks program, a program started five years ago that matches Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollars spent on produce at farmers markets. Participants get matching funds for additional purchases of Michigan-grown produce.

The program started in farmers markets and piloted in a few independent stores last year. This year, East Grand Rapids-based SpartanNash is taking on the task of finding a way to move the program to a bigger venue.

I visited a SpartanNash affiliate store participating in the program, one of three in the company’s pilot that starts Aug. 1. Parkway Foods on the lower east side took over a former Farmer Jack location that had been empty since Farmer Jack closed in 2007.

This was no urban corner store with a small assortment of fruit and bagged salad tucked along the wall. This was a 47,000-square-foot, full assortment grocer.

Store manager Vince Nona, whose family has operated Parkway Foods in the area for four decades, is enthusiastic about what the Double Up program can do for produce, which is the centerpiece of his family’s newly-remodeled store.

It’s not only getting more produce to people who need it, it’s also a good business decision for his store, he said.

“We are also planning to source more Michigan produce than we ever have before,” he told me. “This is a great opportunity.”

There are so many stories of people and companies looking to make a difference in Detroit. Even Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market Inc. put up a shingle last year. I stopped by their Detroit location, adjacent to Wayne State University and a medical center, and found the produce department well stocked for the lunch rush of students and hospital staffers.

Whole Foods is hardly what you’d expect for a neighborhood grocer in Detroit, but it appeared the community was embracing the location.

I’m not trying to be too sunshine and rainbows about the retail outlook, though. When I searched for stores nearby to Whole Foods, I couldn’t find much.

The closest Target was 5 miles away, literally in a whole other country — Windsor, Ontario. I needed to pick up a new tripod and had to drive all the way to Dearborn to find a mass market general merchandise store and I didn’t see a single other supermarket on my way.

That was pretty depressing, and a sign that although great things are happening in Detroit, much work is left to be done.

First posted at The Packer on July 7, 2014. Contact Pamela Riemenschneider at