The black market
City's sole African-American grocer becomes an icon
Published: June 20, 2012
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.
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