The black market

City's sole African-American grocer becomes an icon

The grocery store owner mentioned one day to a customer that sales were down, and said his business might not be around much longer. 

That customer decided something needed to be done. She made phone calls, spread the word and organized a big tailgate party on a spring afternoon in Metro Foodland's parking lot on Grand River near Fenkell. Not just to draw more customers, but also to celebrate the store's 27 years in the community, a word that in Detroit refers to more than geography.

Meat smoked on the barbecue grills. A wine tasting took place. The Cass Tech marching band played loud on the blacktop lot. African-themed products were sold from fold-out tables. There were speeches by local pastors and politicians, and there was a voter registration drive. 

Though many small businesses in the city are struggling right now, hundreds of supporters came out for this one. Because this isn't just any grocery store. It's the last black-owned supermarket in Detroit.

Local media stopped by. Jet magazine called. How is it possible, they all wanted to know, that in a city whose population is mostly black, there is just one black-owned supermarket? 

The store's founder wonders that himself. "Eighty-five percent of the people living in the city are African-American — I'm being conservative — and one store? It doesn't make sense to me," says James Hooks, Metro Foodland's 58-year-old owner. "You have Koreans providing us with hair care and beauty supplies, and you have cleaners that are run by Asians, and Chaldeans are providing groceries, and what's left? Hair salons and nail shops. And that's all we own?"

To some, a store owner's race might seem like it should be an irrelevant factor, but in a city where there are stores that still have decades-old "Black Owned and Proud to Serve You" signs in their windows, race matters.

The customer Hooks confided in, Lila Cabill, is a community activist, the kind who won't shop at your store if you don't say "thank you" when she buys something from you, the kind who visits grocery and liquor stores in the city to check expiration dates on food and complain to owners. She belongs to groups with names like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and Undoing Racism in the Detroit Food System, and once ran the Rosa and Raymond Parks Foundation. 

One reason why shopping at a black-owned store is important, she says, is that many grocers in the inner city treat customers poorly — serving expired food, operating filthy stores, treating their black shoppers like thieves. And since many residents don't have cars to get to better grocery stores in the suburbs, they're sometimes at the mercy of indifferent or hostile merchants.

"See, I won't spend my money at a dirty store. I'm not spending my money if they can't greet me as a customer," Cabill says. "But these people don't have the options I have. I can get in my car and go somewhere else. They have to walk to these places in the neighborhood."

Yet, she thought, here is Metro Foodland, the last black-owned grocery store in the city, and the community can't keep it afloat? At least here, customers from the blocks around it get treated with respect. That should be enough reason to shop here. "There's such a huge difference in terms of the Arab store owners and how they treat customers, and how the lack of respect is ingrained in our social fabric," Cabill says.

So she started an effort called Metro Foodland Loyalty Appreciation Campaign 27, named for the number of years this store's been here. It calls on neighbors to shop at the store 27 times this year, spend $27 each time and ask 27 people to do the same. They hold a drawing every month on the 27th for a $27 gift card to the store. The goal, she says, is to show Detroiters they don't have to drive to the suburbs for good food, that this store is as good as any north or west of the city limits, where many nearby residents prefer to shop.

But it's been a frustratingly hard sell. "The neighborhood's pretty cool, we get the support, but we don't get as much as we need," says Charles Clark, the store's 60-year-old produce manager. "I don't know why that is."

Cabbil thinks she knows. Even black shoppers, she says, have bought into stereotypes about black-owned stores.

"Detroiters typically are not necessarily loyal to Detroit," she says. "The African-American community has a history of not supporting its businesses. When you look at it, it's a racist thing. There's assumptions that are made and stereotypes that are made about businesses. For instance, with Mr. Hooks' business, many people will say, 'Oh, I didn't know it was a black-owned business. This store is so clean.'"

As if things weren't already hard enough for Metro Foodland, news spread that Meijer was thinking of opening a store about a mile down the road. Despite the frequent complaint from Detroiters that national retail chains are unwilling to open within city limits, this news didn't sit well with some people in the neighborhood.

"For one, it's not black-owned," says Carlos Reed, a 33-year-old customer. "For two, it's a large corporation that has the intent of putting this place out of business if it comes. It's just an overall threat because it's going to draw that money out of the community and not gonna put any back into the community."

Clark, who's worked at Metro Foodland for more than 20 years, says a big-box retailer like Meijer will wipe out more than just this store. "Not only will it affect us, but it will affect the other independents too — the hardware stores, 'cause they sell tools. They sell gas, so the gas stations too. They sell plants, so the flower shops too. The liquor stores, 'cause they sell beer and wine. So small independents, they won't have a chance if that guy gets up here. You can't compete with that."

Cabbil sees a more offensive mind-set behind the proposed store.

"There's a thinking that says Meijer is doing us a favor coming into the community. Meijer's is a big corporation. Would they come into a community if they couldn't make money?" she asks. 

Among other things, she objects to the tax abatements granted for the proposed Meijer location, while community businessmen like Hooks are offered little help to survive. "This whole idea of paying white people to move back into the community, in other words, your white privilege allows you to get extra perks because you're living with black people, so you deserve an extra perk. That's the insanity that we have going on."

Hooks started working at the store back in 1969, when he was 16 and it was a Kroger. Years later, the company offered to sell it to him and help him with financing, and he took the offer and renamed the store Metro Foodland. 

There never were many black-owned grocery stores in the city, he notes. Until recently there were two others, started by former employees of his, actually, and both went out of business, leaving him with the title.

He takes pride in defying the stereotypes of an inner-city supermarket. The floors in his store are mopped and swept. The food on the shelves is arranged in crisp rows. The produce section gleams with bright colors. The store has outdoor stands with Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables, a deli featuring just-cooked meals and a Healthy Rewards program bestowing redeemable points when people buy healthy food.

But the economy went sour, neighbors began moving north to the suburbs, and money and the middle class flowed out of the area. Renters took the place of homeowners, and they buy less food, using Bridge Cards instead of credit cards, Hooks says. It has taken a toll on business.

"You got some older people here who chose to stay and they don't need as many groceries, and the other ones only have money when somebody sends it to them," he says. 

Then came Campaign 27, and his supermarket went from selling food to standing as a symbol. Hooks knows why, and understands the importance of the symbolism bestowed on his store.

"I think there should be more African-American-owned-and-operated stores so we can do a better job of serving our folks and showing young people that you can run a store, you can run any kind of business," Hooks says. "Right now, if you don't see us doing it, why would you think to be involved in that industry, or aspire to be a retailer or grocery retailer or something like that? That's not something you would think about. Right now what we see is people playing basketball, or people doing whatever people do, things you see black folks get involved in a lot of. It ain't good. To me it just seems like we're missing the boat." 

As news of this store's singular status became known, a different kind of customer began replacing the ones that left, people whose shopping is intended to make a statement.

Among them were members of the Nation of Islam. They'd heard of the plight of the last black-owned grocery store in the city, and soon men with bowties and impeccable manners were seen shopping the aisles. Hooks reciprocated by stocking the shelves with the nectars and organic foods members told him they wanted. He's even adding Halal meat as well, to meet the sudden surge in demand.

"The Muslim community, right now they're buying their meat at Eastern Market and out in Dearborn, but I was told that they don't really feel welcome when they go to Dearborn to buy their Halal meat from the Arab-Americans," Hooks says.

They gathered here at the tailgate, with the activists and the preachers and the politicians and the neighbors. Reed, a member of the Nation who came not just to shop but to show support as well, spoke of the store's significance. 

"The importance is, when you own businesses in the community, that allows you to build an economy that will enable you to do for the community that you are a part of. When you have other people who are not a part of your community owning the businesses, making money from the community and taking it outside of the community, then that's when the community becomes depleted and destitute, as Detroit is right now, today."

The day wore on, the marching band marched, the pastors preached, the barbecues sizzled and the crowd grew bigger in this crowded lot, where race and economics intersected on a spring day. It might look like just a campaign to support one man's grocery store, but to the hundreds gathered outside, this store's fate is a bellwether of the community's fate.

"Even though it's focused on Mr. Hooks, it's really an attempt to get our community going around the larger picture of economic development in terms of taking care of our community," Cabill says. "It's just a matter of how our resources are allocated, and we need to wake up to how we share our resources."

Detroitblogger John is John Carlisle. He scours the Motor City for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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