Food Fight on Grand River

Local business history will be made when Meijer opens its second superstore in Detroit in 2015. And yet, the coming store may have already had an historic impact: Detroit’s last black-owned grocery store has been sold. Does that matter?

Detroit’s last black-owned grocery store was sold in September, ahead of next year’s scheduled opening of a Meijer superstore just 1.8 miles away.

Did James L. Hooks sell his Metro Foodland store in Rosedale Park because he didn’t want to compete against Meijer? Or did Hooks sell because, after running the store for the past 30 years, he’s onto other business ventures? Has he retired? Or is there another reason why Hooks sold the store on Grand River, just west of the Southfield freeway?

Hooks didn’t return calls from Page One Post for comment, so his motives are unknown.

James L. Hooks, former owner of Metro Foodland in Rosedale Park.

James L. Hooks, former owner of Metro Foodland in Rosedale Park.

But one new owner of Foodland was – for the most part — more responsive. “We’re not afraid of Meijer,” he said. “They are very strong competitors. We didn’t take it (the purchase of Foodland) lightly. But we think we can coexist very nicely with Meijer.”

To do so, the store is currently being remodeled; there has been some hiring, and the staff is being shuffled and retrained; and, by Thanksgiving, the store will operate under a new name and signage: Royal Fresh Market.

Providing these and other details in the store one morning was one of the two owners: a bespectacled, middle-age white man who did not want his name to appear in print. Let’s call him Ron, which is not his real name.

As Ron’s partner stacked shelves that day, Ron spoke in the store’s office alongside his don’t-use-my-name daughter – she handles marketing, purchasng and other functions – and the office manager, Charlonda Love.

Ron merely hunched his shoulders when asked why he didn’t want his name revealed. He said he has 30 years’ experience in the supermarket business around the country, and that his partner owns two grocery stores in Flint and another in Toledo. Ron would not provide the purchase price of the store.

Otherwise, Ron had a lot to say.

“We were attracted to the store because of the location in a busy business area with a good neighborhood, and because Hooks has been here for 30 years and operating successfully despite the competition,” Ron said.

The partners heard through the business grapevine that Hooks was interested in selling Foodland. They did research for two months. There was no bidding war. The deal was completed on September 10.

The store’s reputation for high prices was not only a customer issue. Employees of the store were affected, too, according to Love, the office manager.

“Some of our employees were leaving work to shop for their groceries at the Greenfield Market on Greenfield and Pilgrim,” she said. That store is northeast of Foodland, about a 5-minute drive. “They went where their money could stretch.”

“We have lowered some prices,” said Ron’s daughter, “and there are more to come.” The process is data driven, she said. “We are not trying to be all things to everyone. We will bring in new products and test them out. The data will tell us what to keep and when to get rid of products. We are working to bring in what people want.”

“I’m seeing changes already,” said Love. “Customers have more meat in their baskets. Some are leaving the store with two baskets of products.”

Just as important is the physical condition of the 25,000-sq. ft. store, which Ron described as “tired” at the time of the sale.

To maintain what he called “the integrity of the product,” Ron said that “substantial investments have to be made” to the store. “You have to invest before you get dividends,” he said, while declining to give a dollar figure on the remodeling costs.

Most of the improvements are scheduled to be completed by February, including:
• a new floor
• new refrigeration cases
• new shelving
• upgrades to the décor
• updated compressors on the roof
• a new loading dock

“We are expecting a 15 to 20 percent jump in sales when the remodeling is complete,” said Ron.

As for Meijer, Ron is realistic. “They will take some business from everybody.”

But he thinks he has the right formula to succeed.

“We want to give people a neighborhood environment,” he said. “Our goal is to have a store that is nice, clean, well lit and where customers can get what you want at a price they want to pay, and leave quickly.”

“We want to be a basic meat and potatoes super market store.”

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James E. Kenyon

James is the publisher and editor of Page One Post. He was a newspaper reporter in Detroit and Norfolk, VA, before working in the corporate communications departments at a number of Michigan companies. His last stint was 18 years at Chrysler Corporation, where he handled media relations, product and marketing PR and speech writing. He retired from Chrysler in 2007. He enjoys listening to jazz, good cigars and bourbon Manhattans, often at the same time. He and his partner, Melba, live in Detroit's Rosedale Park neighborhood.