Joel J. Smith and Nathan Hurst, Detroit News, July 5, 2007
The lack of major grocery stores has long been a quality-of-life problem in Detroit and one reason some families don’t want to live in the city. Now, however, the situation is getting worse as the last two Farmer Jack stores in the city prepare to close by Saturday.
If no grocery stores buy the Farmer Jack locations from the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., Detroit will be left without a single national chain supermarket, much less a Wal-Mart or Meijer superstore or a Costco-style warehouse store.
Analysts say no other major city in America is such a supermarket desert. And it’s not likely to change anytime soon.
Recent efforts by city officials, developers and community activists to woo a supermarket have been unsuccessful. Major grocery chains, which generally operate with thin profit margins, say doing business in Detroit is no-win situation. High employee turnover, cost of security and loss from theft are often cited. The city’s comparably low income rates preclude selling an abundance of high-profit, upscale items.
The situation has left regular shoppers at the Farmer Jack stores—one on East Jefferson and the other on Livernois at Seven Mile—with two choices: drive the suburbs to shop if they have transportation, or buy groceries at smaller stores near their homes.
“Why should we have to go elsewhere to find a trustworthy store?” asked Joe Lanier, a longtime shopper of the Livernois Farmer Jack who owns a nearby business. “It’s ridiculous you can’t buy all the groceries you need in Detroit.”
High cost of doing business
Within its 139 square miles, Detroit has 155 grocery stores, defined as various-size food markets with meat and produce. The city also has 1,000 convenience stores—including gas stations and party stores—that sell some type of food.
A 2003 University of Michigan study of Detroit supermarkets showed there were only five grocery stores in Detroit with over 20,000 square feet. The report concluded that the city could support 41 supermarkets with at least 40,000 square feet of space based on its population and spending habits.
Over the years, national chains have located in Detroit, only to pull up stakes and flee. There are a multitude of reasons, according to retail analysts, with the major deterrent being the high cost of doing business in the city.
“Sometimes even the people that live in the neighborhood don’t feel safe shopping in the store,” said David J. Livingston, a supermarket expert from Wisconsin. “They’ll drive right past that Detroit store to go to a suburban store where they feel more comfortable.”
While crime is a concern, Matt Allen, press secretary for Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, said the issue should not be used as an excuse by the big chains to avoid Detroit.
“In certain areas where the socioeconomic is probably at the lowest end of our society, there are a lot of desperate people,” Allen said.
But, he added, businesses can take measures to prevent theft.
“(Businesses) have added lighting, changed the heights of the counters, put the registers in certain places—security by environmental design. It all helps,” he said.
A number of the city’s major developers and economic growth officials said efforts to draw a national grocer to the city have met tepid responses.
Midtown Development President Robert Slattery said he showed a plan for a 12,000-square-foot store with 65 parking spaces to specialty grocer Trader Joe’s, but the company didn’t bite.
His company and Wayne State University are still working to lure a new market to Midtown.
Expired food is a problem
Most independent food stores in Detroit are owned and operated by Chaldeans, some of whom have been in business for 40 or more years. A few are owned by African-Americans.
Martin Manna, executive director of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce in Southfield, said Chaldeans have stepped in as A&P, Farmer Jack and Kroger have abandoned the city.
“There usually is a market within walking distance of nearly every area of Detroit,” Manna said. “It might not be a supermarket. That might be why there are so many people eating potato chips rather than wholesome foods in Detroit.”