Why a store on the corner doesn't always mean healthy food on the table

What compels a customer to take a bus 10 miles across town just to buy a certain rotisserie chicken salad? Apart from really liking this particular chicken salad, this customer knows that if the store says they have it available, then they do.

Such is the case with Honeybee Market, a Southwest Detroit independent grocer that has grown in popularity and success for a number of reasons, chief among them attractive displays of meat and produce and friendly staff.

Of course this kind of consistency and reliability doesn’t happen all by itself. “The way we train our employees,” store manager Brittany Barrios says, “the way that we open our store and the way that we close our store is the same thing every single day…Nothing ever changes or looks differently.”

From checklists to daily walkthroughs by staff, processes are in place to make sure the store is in order. And more than anything, Honeybee management stresses customer service. “That’s what our business thrives on,” Barrios says. “The word of mouth, and giving people a great customer experience where they’re always going to want to come back.”

Behind the scenes, Honeybee creates a better customer experience by using social media to monitor shopper concerns and engaging with their community through neighborhood meetings. They were also an early adopter of consumer-friendly programs like Double Up Food Bucks, which doubles the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables customers can get with their Bridge Cards.

Although Honeybee sets a high bar, there are other stores doing good work in Detroit, like Harbortown Market on East Jefferson and Prince Valley Market on Michigan Avenue. Still, there are widespread concerns in Detroit and other Michigan cities about the quality of food and the level of customer service at urban grocery stores.

The premise is simple, but the effect profound: customers are more likely to shop in stores that have the foods they want and the service to go with it.

“Everybody wants good quality food and they want good customer service,” Rachael Dombrowski, professor of Community Health Education at Wayne State University says. “So, if they don’t get those two things, they won’t go back to the store. It’s as simple as that.”

Supporting grocers so they can support customers

In order to codify some of the best practices set forth by good grocers, as well as bring a higher level of accountability into the business, The Detroit Food Policy Council and partners including Wayne State are launching the Detroit Healthy Grocer Initiative this winter to help stores meet certain standards. They will focus on availability and quality of healthy food, pricing and affordability, customer service, and community engagement. This initiative follows on the heels of a pilot program that took place in seven Detroit district focus groups among Detroit’s 77 independent grocers and three chain supermarkets.

This innovative effort to bring accountability to the city’s food economy could help improve access to quality food by making shoppers feel welcome and by ensuring they have access to the healthy foods they seek.

In Flint, academics and community activists are taking a different approach by developing a smartphone app called Flint Eats that will combine academic research with community feedback on the availability of good food and customer service at markets throughout the city.

These programs and initiatives are designed to give consumers a voice, but they are also designed to strengthen the business models of existing stores that often anchor the low-income neighborhoods they serve.

Flint Eats and the Detroit Healthy Grocer Initiative could create a bridge between grocers and their clientele, who, in some cases, appear to operate at cross-purposes. According to Dombrowski, some grocers “think that people don’t want healthy food,” which leads grocers to purchase low quality produce that customers in turn don’t want to buy. Better communication could help change this dynamic.

Big store benefits on an small store scale

Detroit’s predominately independent grocery stores could also benefit from better training through the program. “So one of the things we want to offer to the stores is some training around customer service, around produce rotation…” Dombrowski says. “Because you would get that in a large corporate store [which would] have a whole training program set up, but for an independent or family owned store you wouldn’t necessarily have all that training available.”

The fact that these grocers are independent stores could offer significant advantages to customers and communities. Owners might be more likely to be on the premises and available to communicate with customers and management. Dombrowski believes that people want to see these businesses remain in their communities.

“These are the folks who have stayed and have weathered the storm and (customers) don’t want to see them close now and only have the suburban stores,” she says. “People will continue to shop and support their stores as long as they’re making an effort to improve and do better.”

Some Flint independent grocery stores also struggle to meet the needs of their customers, experts say. “[There are] the same sorts of issues that you see in other communities that have a lot of disinvestment in the food system,” says Richard Sadler, assistant professor with Michigan State University’s Department of Family Medicine. “The stores that are there are selling rotten meat or there’s just a total absence of food products. A disproportionate pushing of the unhealthy food items.” This situation led Sadler and others develop the Flint Eats app to help people find healthy food in the city, as well as to put “some pressure on retailers.”

The app, which isn’t yet fully operational, is just one of several initiatives in Flint designed to improve the way residents get their food.

Through quality-focused initiatives, smaller grocers can gain big store training to help provide a better service for their customers.

Ashley Sanders-Jackson, assistant professor with MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences has researched public health issues, and she says that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s efforts to improve the physical infrastructure of Flint stores by updating refrigeration and food storage capabilities have also helped. But, as in Detroit, there seems to be a mismatch between the perceptions of grocers who Sanders-Jackson says often struggle to survive in the city, and customers who “didn’t feel that the store owners were necessarily terribly ethical. They were sort of just passing on bad food.”

These perceptions affect the bottom line of neighborhood businesses, and they decrease food access when residents with limited choices choose not to return.

“People did identify customer service in why they didn’t want to shop in stores,” Sadler says, referring to a study conducted by MSU two years ago. “That’s certainly an element in food access because if you don’t feel comfortable shopping in a store and you have to bypass it for whatever reason, then it’s going to impact your ability to access food.”

These efforts to improve customer service in Flint and Detroit neighborhood grocery stores are certainly promising, and further analysis will help determine how the initiatives roll out. Eventually, effectiveness will be gauged by the responses from both grocers and shoppers.

Whether improving existing stores through customer feedback and better business practices will be enough is an open question. A system of accountability for customer needs is certainly an important step towards healthier cities, both physically and financially.

“It would make sense to create a financial system that supports these people to continue to be in the communities,” says Sanders- Jackson, referring to Flint’s grocery stores. “In some ways these stores are providing a public good because they’re providing food to people who may not be able to get to other places. And to recognize that, particularly in communities that don’t have a lot of other sources of food, I think is important.”



This story is part of “Michigan Good Food Stories” a series that explores access, equity, and sustainability in Michigan’s thriving food economy. This work is made possible by Michigan Good Food and is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Photos by Steve Koss.
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