The Whole Foods Market (foreground) in downtown Detroit is adjacent to the Wayne State University Medical Center (background).
The Whole Foods Market (foreground) in downtown Detroit is adjacent to the Wayne State University Medical Center (background).

Detroit’s bankrupt government may earn the city a spot in the top news stories of 2013, but the big news this year for those who live and work in the heart of Motor City is the commitment two major grocery chains made by opening stores in the city’s core.

First was Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, with a new store on Mack Avenue adjacent to the Wayne State University Medical Center.

The June opening was promoted as the unveiling of an oasis for young urban foodies and traditional city dwellers living and toiling in Midtown Detroit’s food desert.

Second by about a month was Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer Inc., which opened a supercenter as the anchor store at the Gateway Marketplace Shopping Center, about 5 miles north of the new Whole Foods.

The store brings not only a full-service grocery store but also more than 550 jobs to the neighborhood around the intersection of Woodward Avenue and 8 Mile Road.

“This store represents a city experience our whole team wants to invest in and watch grow,” store director Adrian Lewis said in a news release.

Lewis personally interviewed more than 400 of the employees for the new Meijer store.

Dominic Riggio, president of Detroit-based Riggio Distribution Co., said the city’s bankruptcy is old news to people in and around Detroit.

He said the downtown area is actually beginning to stage a comeback with young professionals moving into the urban core.

“The opening of Whole Foods near the medical center and Meijer on the north side will do a lot to help revitalize the area,” Riggio said.

Linda Gobler, president and chief executive officer of the Michigan Grocers Association, said the symbiotic relationship of grocery chains and urbanites in downtown Detroit will benefit other businesses and residents in the city.

“Our industry is benefitting from the efforts of people who believe in the city. They are engaging young career-minded people to come in and that will help Whole Foods and Meijer,” Gobler said.

Gobler said a number of independent and ethnic grocers — such as Indian Village Market, E&L Supermercado and Joe Randazzo’s — have stayed the course in Detroit’s downtown despite the economic woes of the city’s government.

Chains venture into land of indies in Detroit“The independent grocers who are already in the city will also benefit from the increasing population and the traffic generated by the chains coming in.”

Meijer could go for two

Although corporate officials at Meijer did not respond to requests for comment, the chain does own another piece of property in Detroit where it could build another store.

The site is the home of the former Redford High School in northwest Detroit and Meijer may be building there in the next couple of years, according to a news story in the Detroit Free Press newspaper.

Meijer spokesman Frank Guglielmi told the paper there’s no announcement yet about that site.

“It’s prepped for a store but our focus is on 8 Mile right now,” he told the Free Press recently.

The new Meijer store at the Gateway Marketplace is at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds. It measures 190,000 square feet and is among more than 200 Meijer stores in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky.

Whole Foods cuts prices

When he addressed attendees of the United Fresh 2013 show in San Diego earlier this year, Whole Foods co-chief executive Walter Robb said the chain’s commitment to lowering consumer costs is embodied in the opening of the store in downtown Detroit.

The lower cost stores such as the one in Detroit and another planned for a food desert area in New Orleans are made possible by having fewer employees and more frozen and pre-wrapped foods, according an interview AdWeek did with Whole Foods co-chief executive John Mackey.

After about two months of operation, the plan appeared to be working out at the 21,500-square-foot store.

The Wall Street Journal reported in August that sales at the Detroit Whole Foods store were double the level expected.

Robb told the Journal the store’s performance proves the chain can win over value-oriented consumers if it makes minor changes to its pricing and product selection.

“We haven’t been there long, but so far, it suggests this might be a positive for us,” Robb told the Journal.

The Detroit location is the sixth store for Whole Foods in Michigan. Nationwide the chain has 365 stores.