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 attract potential 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?
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.
On one level, grocery store ownership is an economic issue as the stores help drive neighborhood economies, says Malik Yakini, director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. The local economies thrive when stocked with businesses that attract customers who will spend their money at other neighborhood businesses, and they develop a prosperous synergy.
Grocery stores can also be 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. A store should be a point of pride, Walker says, and Honey Bee in Southwest is a good example of that.
"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."
But it's often a different story in Detroit's largely Chaldean-owned stores (or those of any race or nationality — several sources interviewed for this article stressed this is a critique of the structure, not Chaldeans).
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, Yakini says.
"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," he tells us.
"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."
Sources we spoke with say that there's also a general lack of respect in some stores in terms of interpersonal interaction 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.
It's those kind of conditions that drive city residents to the burbs to shop. A 2012 Fair Food Network study found Detroiters spent an estimated $200 million on food in the suburbs annually, 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," he says.
The simple solution is for black people in Detroit to open more grocery stores, but it's more complex than that. With other races and nationalities now owning the city's supermarkets, black people are often excluded from management positions, Walker says. So it's difficult for them to get the experience needed to obtain funding and run a store. 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 in 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 in the suburbs more, especially when chains like Walmart and Meijer built "superstores" that promised groceries, pharmacies, housewares, and other shopping needs under one roof, Cabbil says. Some of the superstores even began offering shuttle services.
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.
Cabbil 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 goods for cheaper than a solo African-American owner. Beyond that, lending intuitions froze capital during the recession, which was, perhaps, the biggest recent obstacle.
In an ideal world, none of this would be an issue because people of different races and cultures would live in the same neighborhood, but Detroit is highly segregated, Cabbil says. Thus, we're led back to the broken 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, Cabbil says.
"There's a connectedness of the network that's in place that sustains itself, and so you have a clear pattern," she tells us. "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 that doesn't allow there to be equitable opportunity, or the development of businesses in black neighborhoods.
"It's a vicious cycle, and you really can't leave out the issue of race."
Sources say the first steps to fixing the situation are finding more African Americans who have the drive to open supermarkets, improving access to capital, and training more black people to run stores.
The Fair Food Network is tackling some of the issues with its "bodega bootcamp" that trains people how to manage a business. Similarly, FoodLab Detroit teaches the basics of food entrepreneurship and guides city residents through the process of launching a business.
But there may be a better way to distribute food, says FoodLab director Devita Davison. She points to the Farmer's Hand, a small, corner produce and food market in Corktown that buys from local farmers and producers. It's run by Rohani Foulkes and Kiki Louya, an African American woman. That type of model is better for the local economy and more accessible because it has lower start up costs, Davison says.
She also notes the success of some of the neighborhood bodegas in New York City, local CSAs, and food co-ops. Yakini and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network are moving forward with plans for a co-op in the North End that will largely be owned and run by African Americans. Large scale capitalism failed Detroit on so many levels, Davison says, so perhaps Detroiters should be focusing their energies on these alternative models.
"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?"