By Jon Zemke/Bridge Magazine contributor
How many of you would raise an eyebrow at a story linking the term “food desert” with Detroit? Just one more bit of tough news for a city with a plate piled high with challenges, right?
Well, the reality is different — and better. There are more grocery stores in Michigan’s largest city than most people know about, though there are still sizable sections of the urban landscape without healthy options for eating. One Michigan start-up, Fresh Corner Cafe, is working to solve the latter situation while recognizing the former.
FCC, formerly Get Fresh Detroit, provides fresh, healthy eating options in about a dozen of Detroit’s corner stores. Its products range from chicken wraps to salads. The 2-year-old firm’s business plan is meant to give city residents an affordable, healthy eating option next to the processed junk food that so typically dominates the shelves and coolers in Michigan party stores.
“I am seeing the real dearth in the quality of food,” said Noam Kimelman, CEO of Fresh Corner Cafe. “That’s where the real food desert is.”
Kimelman and a couple of friends, all University of Michigan graduates, started — and run — Get Fresh Detroit from their homes in the Hubbard Farms neighborhood of Southwest Detroit. The ambitious young men planned to eliminate Detroit’s mythical food desert by providing fresh produce in party stores. That mission has evolved, though, after the co-founders’ experience of living in the city.
The group of social entrepreneurs has moved from providing fresh produce to healthy, prepared food. They also went from whatever corner store that would let them in to targeting ones far from a local grocery store. Fresh Corner Cafe has since raised $25,000 in seed capital from a Kickstarter.com campaign ($10,000) and a low-interest loan ($15,000) from the Tech Town-based Detroit Micro Enterprise Fund. That money allowed the start-up to revamp its business plan, coordinate with other local fresh-food initiatives, re-launch under its new brand, Fresh Corner Cafe, and begin looking for office space.
“I’m finding that food deserts are less and less true the more immersed I get in the city,” Kimelman said. “There are lots of grocery stores in the city.”
There are approximately 80 full-service grocery stores in Detroit, according to the Detroit Food Policy Council’s Annual Report for 2009-10. That same report points out that none of those groceries are big-name brands and, surprisingly, only one is black-owned in a city that is overwhelmingly African American. All of these grocery stores are independent-owned and have served their neighborhoods for decades, such as Honey Bee Market in Mexicantown.
However, that same study still notes that the city is underserved in the grocery store market by an estimated $200 million. Existing grocers in Detroit provide an average of 1.59 square feet of grocery retail space per capita, compared to an industry standard of 3 square feet per capita. Kimelman and his partners recognize this, choosing to focus on a section of the city’s northwest side where grocery options aren’t as plentiful.
“What I find most encouraging is they are partnering with existing business,” said Linda Gobler, president of the Michigan Grocers Association. “There are grocers in the city of Detroit. They do fill an existing need.”
Fresh Corner Cafe also is recognizing that there are a plethora of other fresh food initiatives in the city. Its original business plan of providing fresh produce in corner stores was largely duplicative of a Wayne State University-sponsored program. Many of these initiatives, mostly nonprofits such as SEED Wayne or the Fair Food Network or local urban gardens, work to improve the city’s food system.
Fresh Corner Cafe now works to complement these efforts by switching its focus from produce to prepared food. To Kimelman and his comrades in food sustainability, Fresh Corner Cafe is just one more piece of a food puzzle too complex to be solved with one new Meijer or Whole Foods.
“All of these areas need to be touched,” said Sarah Fleming, program manager for the Detroit Economic Growth Corp.’s Green Grocer Project. “We consider them our partners in making more fresh food available in the city. They’re just tackling a different sector. … There are a lot of different sectors out there. It takes a comprehensive community approach to hit all these sectors.”
Whether these efforts can effectively battle long-term urban problems such as food security, infant development and rising obesity rates remains to be seen. The process is a constant evolution of what works and what doesn’t, ranging from helping farmers markets facilitate taking things such as WIC and Bridge Cards (good) to Fresh Corner Cafe experimenting with vegetarian options (remains to be seen).
For the Fresh Corner Cafe’s founders, the bottom line is they believe they have a winner of channeling fresh, healthy food options through corner stores. This probably won’t displace the popularity of pizza slices and bags of chips in these bodegas, but it will provide an affordable option for people who want something different.
“I don’t think we will push as many salads and wraps as they sell burgers and pizza,” Kimelman said. “We might not make as much money as pizza and burgers, but it’s a viable business model.”