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Great Groceries

"But where do you shop for groceries?"

When I moved into Detroit in 1994, the question I heard most from suburbanites about my new home was, "Do you feel safe?"

Thirteen years later, I get the grocery question. I guess that's a semblance of progress, no?

Plenty of Detroiters shop near their suburban work places, but there's an ever-increasing array of grocery shopping options to be had inside the city limits — many of which rival suburban super-superchains.

(Those not satisfied until they can shop at a store with a familiar logo will pretty much only find Aldi, the German discount behemoth. It has opened locations at Mack-Alter Plaza and on Gratiot near Eight Mile.  It will soon open another in Highland Park, and the company is actively scouting more locations.)

Despite chains pulling out their Detroit stakes one by one, however, no one can argue that the city's offering of grocers has improved significantly in recent years. Where the big guys have left, the independents have picked up the slack, and many even outperform the old chains.

Northwest Detroit

When I lived in the University District a decade ago, there was a janky Farmer Jack's on Livernois and a Sav-On that had a shopping cart jail outside of its doors. So, I trekked up to Ferndale for food.

Those same two grocers are still there, but are now quite a bit different.

When Farmer Jack closed its ever-irrelevant doors earlier this year, it had all but turned its back on its neighborhoods. With some of the city's best neighborhoods nearby — University District, plus Green Acres, Palmer Woods and Sherwood Forest — clocking serious ducats just across Livernois, the grocer had not evolved its food offerings to meet that demographic's demands.

Enter Mike's Fresh Market, which took over the space in October, endearing itself to neighbors with organic foodstuff, fresh herbs and ethnic offerings.

Likewise, over the last several years, Sav-On has evolved, improving its façade and merchandise. While still basic in most respects, it is clean and certainly not, well, gross.

Over in Grandmont Rosedale, Metro Foodland is a full-service grocery store that is known for being community-oriented. North Rosedale Park resident James Singleton shops there regularly and appreciates the fact that the store will fill special requests, like stocking the brand of organic milk his family favors. "That's a nice little touch," he says.

Southwest Detroit

The Latino population boom in Southwest Detroit has done nothing but good for the grocery scene. Let me count the ways: E&L Supermercado (seafood!), Ryan's Foods (meats!), Sam's Mercado (open late!), Prince Valley Supermercado (empanadas!).

And then there's the Honeybee Market/La Colmena on Bagley. Rarely does a supermarket inspire like Honeybee. When it was a mom-and-pop corner store, it was already a great neighborhood asset; but after a 7,000-square-foot expansion last year, it's become the kind of place about which shoppers wax poetic. It attracts locals, downtown workers and even suburbanites who drive in for its fresh salsa, homemade tortillas, beautiful veggies and impressive meat counter.

Tammy Alfaro-Koehler's family has owned the market for over 50 years. After watching the neighborhood decline, they are now watching it regain its vibrancy. "Our clientele is changing," she says. "I still emphasize my Mexican heritage and background, (but the store now offers) more stuff, like meat and produce and products that are multicultural."

This blend of gringo and Mexican is healthy, popular and keeps Honeybee's aisles full all hours of the day.

Alfaro-Koehler, whose husband Ken Koehler is a former Westborn Market manager, says the key to the supermarket's success is cleanliness, customer service and quality. "It's not just the products, but the environment" that matters, she says. She hopes to convey this message to Detroiters. "If I want that, other people want that. If I deserve that, other people deserve that too," she says.

Greater Downtown

While it might seem intuitive, it bears repeating: Eastern Market is much more than just a Saturday farmer's market. The specialty shops that line Market and Russell Streets, along with the Gratiot Central Market, are open five or six days a week and are filled with goods of which Holiday Markets can only dream. Find the finest imported cheeses at R.J. Hirt, a broad selection of wine at Cost Plus, spices and coffee at Rafal, and olives and Middle Eastern fare at Gabriel Imports. Other shops offer flowers, fresh meat, baked goods and produce at deals you won't find in suburban supermarkets. (They don't call Whole Foods "Whole Paycheck" for nothing.)

People, however, still want the convenience of traditional grocery stores. Fine. Downtown shoppers have the stalwart University Foods on Warren, which is growing its ethnic and organic offerings by the week.

Lafayette Park recently landed Downtown Foodland, which will open in the spring. Owner Keith Tansil currently manages Metro Foodland and will bring that experience to the downtown community that, by all accounts, is chomping at the bit for its arrival.

Tansil sees a bright future for independent grocers in the city. "Independents are taking over the city because chains aren't interested in the city of Detroit," he says. "I feel that independents can be just as great as a chain supermarket and a little bit more community oriented."

On top of this news, Zaccaro's Market, an upscale specialty grocer, is currently in negotiations to locate in the Crystal Lofts on Woodward. It would be the second location for the Charlevoix-based store, which is known for its prepared take-home foods – perfect for those days when you want home cooking without the cooking.

Hamtramck

Like Southwest Detroit, Hamtramck's immigrant populations mean good news for residents. For the adventurous palate, markets catering to Bangladeshi, Indian and Yemenese line the city's walkable streets. Plus, its bread alone can sustain a non-carb-counting resident. Try the New Palace, New Polka, Martha Washington or New Deluxe for baked goods.

Joseph Campau's Polish Market has an excellent deli, delectable take-home soups and great canned and pickled goods. For a more "American" experience, A&C delivers basic goods at a fair price.

East Side

The East Jefferson corridor is less boutique and more shopping cart. And that is not a bad thing for residents of the Villages and the Jefferson East community. While this area is also dealing with the loss of a Farmer Jack's, it has two great independents: Harbortown and Indian Village Market. While a bit higher-priced than a Kroger's, the selections emphasize healthy organic products over mass-produced pap.

Najib Atisha owns the Indian Village Market and is cognizant of the needs of his upscale clientele. He stocks all-natural and vegetarian items and some higher quality, specialty produce and meats. Atisha is also considering adding a delivery service.

Like Alfaro-Koehler and Tansil, he is bully on customer service. He also special-orders items and will keep them in stock them if they prove to sell. "We're happy if the customer is happy," he says.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh is Development News and Innovation and Jobs News Editor for Model D and metromode.


Photos:

Honey Bee Market

Aldi

Mike's Fresh Market

Metro Foodland

Gratiot Central Market

Harbortown Market

Indian Village Marketplace



All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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