Upscale Markets In A Down-Sized Metro
For a town that's not well-appreciated on the national food scene, Metro Detroit boasts an impressive array of specialty grocery stores. While the number of traditional grocery stores fell with the closing of Farmer Jack a few years ago, big chains such as Whole Foods
and Trader Joe's
as well as local family businesses are filling the gap for hungry foodies.
There are a remarkable number of high quality, locally owned grocers in Metro Detroit. One of the biggest reasons is the Detroit Produce Terminal, near the Ambassador Bridge. Buyers from local markets send produce buyers there nearly every day to easily source high quality produce from around the globe. Similarly, they can tap into the centralized offerings of meat cutters and packers around Eastern Market
. A family affair
But in the end, it may just come down to family pride. Almost invariably, the story for these locally owned specialty stores goes something like this: The first generation starts the family store as a humble butcher shop or fruit market that mostly serves the surrounding neighborhoods. The second generation, having grown up in the business, takes it to the next level by expanding into several locations and putting up palatial buildings that draw people from miles around. Finally, the kid scanning your purchases at the cash register or helping you find the soup is a member of the third generation.
"What these independent markets have is passion," says Mark Anusbigian, president of Westborn Market
. "When you come into our stores, it's like walking into our home."
Walk through the store with these guys, and you start to see the place in a whole new light. They'll reflexively flip a box of crackers so the logo faces out, or move a jar a centimeter over so the display looks a little better, without skipping a beat. For the shoppers, the overall impression is of a place that looks tidy, but for the owners, the stores hold family history, reputation and legacy within their walls.
Considering just a few of the major players in the local food retailing scene over the last five years, Westborn Market has revamped its three Metro Detroit stores (Dearborn, Livonia, Berkley), expanding their square footage and product lines. Meanwhile, Holiday Market
has expanded to take over the entire Royal Oak strip center in which they are located. Also, two sons of the Jonna family, which owned the lamented Merchant of Vino gourmet chain, have opened Plum Market
stores in West Bloomfield, Bloomfield Township and Ann Arbor. That's in addition to Papa Joe's
destination "Gourmetrion" megastore in Rochester Hills and an enormous new store for Vince and Joe's
in Shelby Township.
Anusbigian, son of the Westborn founder, says he always knew he'd be going into the family business. "I could have told you I'd be sitting here when I was 10 years old," he says, "here" being the comfortable meeting room in the company's sprawling Berkley store. Anusbigian says he finds the business fascinating, with the seasonality of produce and the constant evolution of food trends.
Just down Woodward in Royal Oak, Holiday Market completed its own expansion last year, more than doubling the size of their produce department and expanding the bakery and prepared-foods areas.
As Tom Violante, Jr. tells it, his father started Holiday as a small butcher shop in the 1950s, then some years after, bought the strip center on Main Street just off of I-696 where the market remains. Over the years, the store has expanded in the strip center and now occupies all of it.
"A customer would ask for an item, and my dad would say 'oh, we just ran out, come back next week," he says. "They'd come back next week and we'd have a new item and new customer. You do that ten thousand times, you need a bigger store."
That ability to be responsive to customers is what sets local stores like Holiday apart, Violante says. "The chain stores work on an accounting basis – Wal-Mart will say 'let me get the best deal on something' (in order to sell it). We'll say, 'let me put it out there for people to buy. That's how we operate, we see what customers want and get it for them."
Location, location, location
Often, the locations of these stores have a lot to do with where the current generation's parents lived and chose to open, which is an entirely different ballgame with the big chains. According to Whole Foods Market spokeswoman Kate Klotz, the company looks at things like parking availability, traffic patterns, competition from local natural and organic stores, and the education level of the surrounding communities. "We look at where our products will be best received, and what type of person is interested in organic and natural products," she says. Ann Arbor's university crowd, for instance, attracted two Whole Food Markets within four miles of each other.
Whole Foods has a link to another of the local stores that recently opened, Plum Market. It's a new player – but one with a very familiar name behind it for Metro foodies. Marc and Matt Jonna, co-owners of Plum Market, are the sons of Merchant of Vino founder Edward Jonna. He sold the gourmet food and wine chain to Whole Foods Market about eight years ago.
Marc Jonna went to work at Whole Foods thereafter, while Matt went into real estate development. Marc's love for the retail business and Matt's real estate savvy spurred them to team up on Plum Market.
None of these specialty markets are exactly budget choices, and in this economy you might expect customers to drift to big discount chains in order to save a few bucks here and there. But these owners bristle at the idea, emphasizing that their costs are low judged against the high quality of their products. And it's something their customers seem to respond to.
"The first thing, and foremost thing, is we will not lower our quality to lower our price," Violante says emphatically. "With that being said, we understand right now people aren't going to be grabbing $30, $40, $50 wines – we can find a $12 bottle of wine that's wonderful."
Anusbigian says his store has reduced prices on a number of items, which they've been able to do while maintaining quality because of slumping wholesale prices across the board. "Our number of products sold is the same; however, the dollars per purchase are down."
Unlike Westborn and Holiday, which have been able to ride out downturns before, Plum Market is opening in the worst economy in Michigan since the Great Depression. Marc Jonna dismisses that as a concern, however. "It makes us more aggressive," he says. "Traditionally, the best businesses have opened in recessions. This is a marathon, not a sprint."
With so much competition out there, one of the biggest spurs to improvement for each of the stores is the presence of the others.
"More competitors makes it better for all," Jonna says.
Maybe it's the fact we've become conditioned to having a nice market down the street and so we'll cut a lot out of our budgets before we accept drab, harshly lit aisles, crowded cash register lines and items whose primary appeal is that you can get ten of them for a dollar. Or maybe it's that each store owner knows there's another place down the street gunning for the same customer. But the fact remains there seems to be an endless appetite for fine foodstuffs, and good places to buy it, here in Metro Detroit.
"That question (as to why Detroit has so many upscale stores) is asked all over the country," says Anusbigian. "We all feed off one another and challenge one another."
Kuras is a Detroit-based freelance writer whose grandparents owned a grocery store in Detroit's Warrendale neighborhood. Her previous article for Metromode
was Rethinking The Cineplex
Mark Anusbigian, president of Westborn Market
Mark Anusbigian with his son
Cherry Pies at Holiday Market
Aisles of varietals at Holiday Market
Zingerman's bread counter at Plum Market
Sushi at Plum MarketPhotographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D
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