With nine years in the game, Goodwells Natural Food Market is a relative veteran in Midtown -- or Cass Corridor. Whatever name you fancy for the area, the market's existence straddles the birth of one neighborhood and the rebranding of another.
Eating naturally was not new to Detroit, but Goodwells did precede the organic, farm-to-table boom now standard in comeback stories of Detroit and other cities. Locally, one needs to look no further than Whole Foods, which opened in 2013 and marked a turning point in food retailing in Detroit.
For a brief time, Whole Foods spelled trouble for Goodwells, co-owner James Wood admits. "For the first six months, there was no real effect," he says. "But after that, they pretty much wiped out our grocery business at first. We're starting to rebound now."
Wood is a busy man and a challenge to pin down. In the mornings before Goodwells opens, Wood is stocking shelves with fresh produce and other groceries. Things pick up around lunchtime as customers pack the shop, waiting in line for Goodwells' famous pocket sandwiches and homemade vegan soups. And Wood spends the hours after closing straightening up the place.
Being busy is probably more of a blessing than a curse. As more Whole Foods stores and other larger chains slowly make their way to rebounding Detroit, smaller businesses may feel the pinch. Even more pressing is how black-owned businesses in Detroit, such as Goodwells, will fare as the city moves forward.
"I came up in a time in the 1950s when there were thousands of black-owned businesses. It was a given," Wood says. "To see that culture, that decrease over the decades is quite disconcerting. I'm not happy about that."
To be clear, black-owned businesses are not a rarity in Midtown, and certainly not the city itself. What's top of mind for some of these businesses is preserving the ones that are here, and making sure that future black entrepreneurs have the same opportunities as others looking to strike gold in Detroit.
The conversation about where black-owned businesses fit into Detroit can become weary. There are boosters who believe the city should welcome any new business, regardless of ownership, because there is so much space to fill. On the opposite side of the debate, black business owners have raised concern about their lack of visibility in narratives, while would-be business owners question if their ambitions are welcome in a startup culture whose statistics often show mostly white numbers.
Wood frequently looks back to a time when these conversations had a different tone.
"That culture of entrepreneurship was tied directly to the auto industry [booming]," he says. "[But] black people were less integrated, so they spent more with each other."
Part of what's missing from Detroit today is the kind of unwavering support residents show for black businesses. Goodwells does fine in that regard; "We've had no problem with being supported by all people, really," Wood says. But encouragement of black entrepreneurs to go further with their endeavors can be lacking.
"It's going to be imperative that not just black people, but all people, are going to have to become more entrepreneurial," Wood says. "So many of the things that were available are not going to be available in the future. Everybody's going to be more self-reliant and take care of each other. That's the key to the future of businesses in the city of Detroit."
"The major corporations are going to do their thing anyway," he adds. "There's nothing we can do to stop them."
Wood and Goodwells' other owners opened up shop with no debt. "We planned it that way," he says. The goal was slow, steady growth, and to create a model that can be used in other neighborhoods.
"Midtown at that time [when Goodwells opened] was not booming as it is now. In some senses, it was easier than now because even though Midtown has boomed, because even though more people are coming, there's more competition," Wood says. "We're still sustaining, but there's less growth. So we have to be ready for greater competition and upgrade and continue to keep making things better."
A major advantage for Wood was several owners pooling their interests to found Goodwells. Years later, Wood now runs the store with his son, Jason.
Goodwells has no plans for expansion, and Wood says the store is continuously searching for its niche in a changing marketplace. But the model for success can be duplicated, he says, and he'd love to see more neighborhoods with "Goodwells" in them.
"The key is to really start small and build. Learn the basic principles of business, and that can be done anywhere," Wood says.
Aaron Foley is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @aaronkfoley.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.