Two Detroit residents, one lifelong and one new, look to start small-scale neighborhood grocery

Megan Burritt has worked for years in various capacities in the food industry. She's been an organic produce distributor, a buyer and bakery manager for the west coast grocery chain Raley's Supermarkets, and a supply chain manager for the meal-kit company Blue Apron. 

But, she says, Detroit's food business ecosystem is unlike anything she's encountered — in a good way. "This city has far surpassed my expectations for community and neighborhood support," she says. "I've spent my whole life working in food, and Detroit is absolutely different from every city I've been in, in terms of how inclusive and focused it is on social justice and equity in its food system."

Community support is one reason why Burritt moved to Detroit with her wife a year ago: it's the perfect city to start a neighborhood-based grocery. Early this year, she teamed up with with native-Detroiter and entrepreneur Raphael Wright to launch Neighborhood Grocery, a small-scale grocery with a hyper-local focus, which they hope will create jobs and contribute to the community's wealth. 

Rendering of Neighborhood Grocery -- Herman Kiefer Development LLC
For Wright, Neighborhood Grocery is a personal venture. He got a degree in business from Marygrove College and started both a clothing line, HustleMania Shirts, and media company, Plug'd Media, as well as writing two books on business and wealth building. 

After selling his clothing line, he had some capital to invest, but wanted to start a social enterprise — something that could "add value to people's lives," he says. "And one thing we all have to do every day is eat."

Even though consumers increasingly go online for their shopping, groceries have largely resisted this trend. "Americans still want to go to store and touch the apple before they buy it," Burritt says. 

Wright sees numerous ways a small-scale grocery store could benefit people in his community. There's steady and reliable jobs, which he says will pay a livable wage and create upward mobility and skill training through the culinary arts. Neighborhood Grocery plans on having a kitchen with staff to cook prepared food. 

Neighborhood Grocery will also have a "local money multiplier effect," says Burritt, by keeping profits local through purchases from from Detroit farmers and producers. "There may be this one grocery story in the neighborhood, but it can have concentric rings of positive effect."

But Wright is also diabetic — for him, healthy eating is a life and death matter. That's why providing healthy alternatives is so important to the business. "Before starting this venture, I wasn't crazy about food other than for eating," he says. "But as I got into the research, I fell in love with how important food is. It really became a passion to bring good food into the community."

Both Wright and Burritt were working on similar projects separately. After hearing about each other, they met and found they had complementary skill sets and backgrounds. "I know the 'why,' she knows the 'how,'" says Wright. 

Raphael Wright
That how will be a grocery model not really in existence anywhere else in the country. The two will draw on examples and practices from other stores — like a new Salvation Army community grocery store in Baltimore that serves niche food items — but combined in a unique way.

"Boutique grocers often have products at a higher price point for lower quality than what you can buy outside the city," she says. "It's a challenge for me to reach those foods — and I have a car and access to resources. Think about folks who don't, who work full-time, and who have to feed their kids."

It may be a challenge to offer food that's both affordable and fresh, but Burritt's years of experience have shown her the many ways grocers can reduce costs. 

For starters, buying local cuts out the middleman in a traditional food distribution chain, so the difference in cost is not significant. 

Additionally, the small format grocery allows for "trust curation." Trader Joe's, for example, offers a small number of each item instead of the dozens that might be available at a Meijer. The customer will eventually learn to trust that they'll like what's on the shelves. 

Megan Burritt
And earning customer trust is an essential part of the business plan — their customers will inform them about the kinds of items to stock in the store, particularly those with cultural significance.

Fewer items on the shelf is not just part of Neighborhood Grocery's waste reduction strategy —it will also allow them to repurpose produce. If an item has been on the shelf a little too long, prep cooks can reuse them in in-house packaged goods. Slightly wilted carrots can become carrot sticks or carrot soup.

Wright has taken the lead on raising funds. He says they plan on taking advantage of the 2014 MILE Act that allows non-accredited individuals to invest small amounts in businesses. Neighborhood Grocery was also recently announced as a Hatch Detroit 2018 semi-finalist and will have a chance on August 30 to win the $50,000 prize fund. 

The Center for Community-Based Enterprise is both helping refine their membership model and handling most legal needs. 

As of now, Wright and Burritt say they're at least six months from opening, but have leads on a couple of east side buildings. They intend to partner with a landlord who shares their values and can help with the build-out. While the Mack Avenue corridor is their preferred location, the project is flexible and many Detroit neighborhoods could use an accessible grocery store that caters to their needs. 

Because, ultimately, Neighborhood Grocery is meant to foster community. "It's about having that communication with customers, so they feel that this is their store as well," Wright says. "There's nothing like coming into a store and having people know your name. Asking, 'Do you want your usual?'

"This is nothing new; it's not a new technique or method." But in the internet age, knowing where you product comes from and the person selling it to you seems pretty novel. 

This article is part of "Detroit Innovation," a series highlighting community-led projects that are improving the vitality of neighborhoods in Detroit, while recognizing the potential of residents to work with partners to solve the most pressing challenges facing their communities.

The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that's working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.

Photos by Nick Hagen
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Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.