HOUR Detroit: This Detroit Native is Fighting a Food Desert With New Grocery Store

Raphael Wright adopted a healthy lifestyle after being diagnosed with diabetes in his late teens. He grew up on Detroit’s east side, where his family suffered food insecurity. He knew changing his diet was the first step in improving his health, but finding quality produce in his Chandler Park neighborhood was challenging. He would search the nearby convenience stores for more nutritious alternatives to the hot chips, chocolate bars, and sugar-coated candies lining the shelves, opting instead for a bag of trail mix and water.

For anything else, he ended up driving 30 minutes to the suburbs, where “even the worst grocery stores would have healthy food,” he says. “My neighborhood store wasn’t any good. Then it burned down.”

The lack of quality food motivated Wright to help his community. He was inspired by other investors that had opened businesses in his neighborhood, such as convenience stores, and recognized that change was possible.

So Wright, now 34, created Neighborhood Grocery, a full-service grocery store on Detroit’s east side — about 10 minutes from his old neighborhood — on Manistique Street and Essex Drive. It’s set to open in July.

According to the lifelong Detroiter, Neighborhood Grocery will significantly improve his neighborhood.

“It’s a combination of a convenience store, a mom-and-pop store, and full-service market,” he says. “It will have everything that you need.”

It Takes a Village

In February, Wright received a grant of $85,000 from Motor City Match, a program through the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. that offers funding and links new and developing businesses with services and space to grow.

“We are thrilled to see his vision come to life in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood,” says Sean Gray, vice president of small business services at the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. “His commitment to this project and his community stands as an example of the tenacity that defines Detroit’s entrepreneurial spirit. Neighborhood Grocery will be a game changer for the community by providing access to fresh and healthy food options previously out of reach for some residents.”

For further funding, Wright turned to his fellow Detroiters, using a profit-sharing model he’d seen employed by a similar store in Oakland, California, where locals — or anyone interested — could invest in his project.

“The No. 1 goal for the profit-sharing model is avoiding the bank as much as possible,” he says. “Instead of paying back a loan, I would rather pay people back. The profit-sharing is my attempt to hedge proverty. You don’t really get a lot doing it this way, but I can attempt to get people a liveable wage, while also hedging poverty. This makes people want to invest into their community, not just with projects like my project but others.”

Neighborhood Grocery has received investments from more than 400 people. Wright says all are Michiganders, and most of them are from Detroit. The average investment is $75, and the top investment (so far) is $10,000; the minimum is $50. In exchange, investors receive a share of the profits, product discounts, and exclusive access to special offers and events taking place at the establishment. Investors can still sign up, according to the company’s website.

In 2021, Neighborhood Grocery’s development got underway with an $800,000 reconstruction of the old building on the site, once home to the Manistique Market. According to Wright, the “bulk” of the $800,000 came from his partner and developer, Method Development, and the rest came from the crowd investment. The $85,000 grant from Motor City Match is going toward equipment, he says.

Looking Ahead

In addition to the grocery store, Wright also bought a half-acre plot of land five minutes away to produce food that will be sold inside the store and distributed around the neighborhood and other communities. He plans to start growing fruits and vegetables for the grocery store next April, when the timeline for producing food starts in Michigan, he says. He’ll also partner with other community gardens and produce suppliers to stock the store.

“If you can’t feed your people, you can’t lead them to do anything,” Wright says in a video on the grocery store’s website.

Wright hopes that his business will help people realize that they can take control of their surroundings.

“I’m Black — I’m aware of racism, discrimination, all of that stuff, but at some point, that is going to become an excuse if you don’t start doing your own type of work,” Wright says. “That’s what this store is a testament of for me. I just went out and did the work [and] sighted an issue in the community. There are not enough healthy food stores or stores that can really supply a well-balanced diet for families in the city of Detroit, and I went and built it from the ground up.”

Wright admits that this entrepreneurship journey was not an easy one.

“It was a lot of work that I didn’t expect it to be and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing when I started, and five-something years later, here we are now.”

Source: Hour Detroit