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Whole Foods CEO: Detroit is a long-term investment

The manager of Whole Foods' newest store applauds at the grand opening ceremony in Midtown, Detroit.

Whole Foods, the upscale grocer, opened a brand new store today. And despite its affluent image, the new Whole Foods store is in Midtown, Detroit, one of the poorest neighborhoods in one of the poorest cities in the country. Midtown has a poverty rate of 50 percent. 

So, what’s in it for Whole Foods?  Kai Ryssdal interviewed CEO Walter Robb, somewhere between the sweet cherries and the olive oils, about why he decided to open a store in one of the poorest areas of Detroit.

“People perceive Whole Foods as only receiving a particular community and I don’t like that,” Robb says, speaking of the company’s reputation as catering to a more-affluent clientele.

Robb says he believes the company should continue to serve more communities with [a] mission to serve everyone.

Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb

The location in Detroit is only the first step in making healthy eating a priority for low-income neighborhoods.  Robb says he plans to open the next store in Mid-City, New Orleans, another seemingly unlikely location for Whole Foods.

Midtown has an edge on some of the other poor neighborhoods in Detroit: a large population of middle-class commuters drive in from the suburbs to work at the medical center and university located in the neighborhood. Robb knows they’ll make up a big slice of the shopper pie, but he says Whole Foods is committed to the people who live in Midtown, not just those who work there.

"This is a rock-solid commitment. We signed a long-term lease and we're here to stay" says Robb. He expects to be in the area for at least another 25 years.

Will the Midtown Whole Foods be too pricey for the folks who live in the area?

"[W]e do the pricing in every single community we serve," Robb says. "We try to be competitive with our prices. I made a personal commitment on behalf of the company for us to be affordable. This market has some special pricing because this is a different market than we usually serve.”

A shopper picks out produce in the new Whole Foods store.

Pricing’s been a priority, and so has outreach. Whole Foods placed nutritionists in the community to teach people how to shop for healthy food without breaking the bank.

“We’ve done classes on how to shop on a budget and some basic classes on health and wellness. I think those have been well received in this community,” says Robb.

To hear what residents think of the new store, click here.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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I am sure the managers came with a good strategy before opening a store in one of the poorest areas of Detroit, their products are affordable and people from Detroit will benefit from that. When my uncle was in Detroit to take his order from http://www.frozenyogurtparts.com/ he entered the store and liked how everything was set. There were a lot of customers and they all were buying a lot of products because the prices were very affordable.

"Did you have to teach people how to shop here?"....god what a stupid and offensive question by Kai Ryssdal. Ya us Detroiters don't know how to shop at a grocery store we only can grunt and point at a fast food menu. Kai your line of questioning was offensive. Go back to yuppie LA, sorry Detroit is too real for you.

I was a little surprised by some of the questions in the interview. Whole Foods can only be Whole Foods. They can't open a Wal-Mart because of worries over cost. I think that Whole Foods should be applauded for doing this, and hopefully it will attract more stores to the area and Detroit will no longer be a food desert.

Kudos to you Walter Robb for believing in Detroit and building a Whole Foods smack dab in the hood! I liked how Mr. Robb flipped the script on Kai when he said journalists are skeptics and entrepreneurs are believers. Way to go Whole Foods!

My hat is off to Whole Foods for what they did. I have been traveling through the low income areas in Chicago and it was truly a "food desert" . A corner store selling Twinkies and that's about it. One has to have hope and exposure and Whole Foods provides both. Jobs for the area and exposure to different types of foods, sometimes the types of foods that people may not have ever tried. I think we need to see more of these types of joint efforts if we want to see the real change in low income areas. Talk is cheap, Whole Foods is real.

Eugene S., FunderHut

Having listened to Kai Ryssdal's story on the show today, I must say that I felt the slant of his questioning and tone of the story appalling. He seemed utterly incredulous that Whole Foods would open in Midtown, across from what he referred to as "the projects." He also seemed to disbelieve that people who aren't white and affluent would ever cross the street to shop for "healthy" food. I found his reporting patronizing and unconsciously racist - and I'm not even a person of color. The racial and socio-economic divide in this country is growing into a deep, dark chasm and reporting like Mr. Ryssdal's underlines why. Even if Walter Robb is opening a Whole Foods in downtown Detroit to service white people who live in the suburbs (!?), to assume that people of color will be offended by its very presence or never, ever shop there is absurd.

I had a very similar reaction. Kai was a bit 'on the muscle' with Mr. Robb. Without leaders taking a chance on what from just about every angle looks to be a hopeless situation, there will be no revival or progress. Hats off to Whole Foods for taking a leap and helping Detroit step forward.

Whole Foods is disingenuous. They have two stores in the their home town of Austin, Texas. Both are in high income areas not easily accessible via public transportation. If Whole Food is serious about people eating better they should start here in Austin in the food deserts like Del Valle, Texas. Why not open a smaller, more affordable grocery store in Del Valle to provide people with healthy choices?

Thanks for coming to Detroit! I wish I would have known you were in town. I would have taken the day off and driven to Whole Foods!

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