When rumblings of Whole Foods opening a store in Detroit began around 2010, it sparked both excitement and controversy.
In the wake of then Mayor Dave Bing’s claim that Detroiters were spending $200 annually at grocery stores outside the city, many believed Whole Foods would be a much-needed addition to a food landscape that had developed a rather notorious reputation of its own.
But those who opposed claims that Detroit was in fact a “food desert” — citing the city’s roughly 80 operating grocery stores, let alone the robust offerings of Eastern Market and a growing network of urban farming initiatives — had mixed feelings about the store.
Whatever side of the debate you landed on at the time, after five years in operation, it’s hard to deny the store’s success. And the fact that Whole Foods continues to operate in the community is a source of pride for store Team Leader Larry Austin.
“I’ve been with Whole Foods for 19 years. Before that, I was working at a small natural food store in Ann Arbor and had just gotten to a point where I wanted more. Whole Foods was pretty new to Ann Arbor and a friend of mine told me they heard good things about them, so one day I went over and applied. I didn't get the job the first time, but I went back and was hired as a receiver. I wasn't really planning on staying in retail, but I fell in love with the company and started working my way up the ranks.”
For Austin, the decision to open a Detroit location was an opportunity he’d been thinking about for some time, and it wasn’t long before a fateful conversation led to that vision starting to take shape.
“I remember having a conversation with Red Elk Banks, who also worked with me on the Detroit project. We were talking about the opportunities Whole Foods presents to employees, and that if you work hard, you can truly make a career out of it. So, I remember him saying, “Man, this would be great to have as a resource in Detroit to help create jobs.”
That idea soon started spreading through the ranks.
“A few years after that we did a breakout session in Chicago about what the future looked like for us, and we came up with the idea of having more community-based stores. At that point, it was just really a concept — but fast forward a few years and that concept turned into a real conversation about a Detroit location. I remember walking up to David Lewis, who was my Executive Coordinator of Operations at the time, and saying, “If you open a Detroit store, I want in.”
That wish came true when he was named store team leader.
In order to learn more about what was going on in the community, Whole Foods Market put together a small group of team members to get out and connect with the people who called it home.
“We went to churches… Community centers… Everywhere and met some great people along the way. I quickly realized that when you come into a community, you need to listen to them and not just come in with your ideas about what you think people need. That was a big lesson for me because I love Whole Foods and I was so excited about going to Detroit. Then you come down and start talking to the community and they start giving you their perspective on what the community really needs. That lesson about truly sitting back and listening and trying and understand before trying to be understood, has translated to so many other parts of my life.
The insights gleaned from those conversations ultimately shaped the store in more ways than one.
“With this project the community was very involved in the design of the store. We even led trips to suburban locations so they could get an idea of what Whole Foods was all about. They were very vocal about wanting a place they felt was representative of the community. That's why you see things like the Motown Records on the registers and tables made out of auto parts... The juice bar… The smoothie bar… That was all done based on feedback from the community.”
In addition to connecting with consumers, Austin and his team engaged local producers by investing in major renovations to Eastern Market, and sourcing from local brands like Avalon, McClure’s, Sha La Cynts Popcorn, Sweet Potato Sensations, Friends of Detroit Potato Chips, Germack and more.
When the store finally opened in June of 2013, it was clear those efforts paid off.
“Opening day was unbelievable. I mean everybody was out there — the parking lot was absolutely packed and the line to get in the door was down to Woodward. We had to go one person in, one person out all day. We felt proud to be a part of this community. Those of us that worked so hard trying to understand each other were so happy to see it actually come to pass. It was an amazing moment for us and hopefully for the community as well.
Today, the store has become a community staple, and Austin credits much of that success to those early collaborative efforts — efforts that are still ongoing.
“We’re always trying to honor what we said from the beginning. We’re not perfect and we do fall short sometimes, but our intention is to continue to do right by the community.”
That intention manifests in different ways. In addition to encouraging healthy lifestyles through cooking and health education classes on-site, they’re also supporting existing local initiatives through their Whole Cities Foundation: A program that seeks to improve community health outcomes by supporting local food access projects that are community-led and self-sustaining, like community gardens, mobile markets, urban farms and pop-up produce stands.
The success of Whole Foods is truly promising as Detroit continues to evolve. The efforts by Austin and his team are a case study in what’s possible when “Old Detroit” meets “New Detroit” with equal parts empathy and inspiration. Detroiters appreciate the convenience and quality stores like Whole Foods provide, and when they know their voices are being not just heard, but valued through real action, everybody wins.