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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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