June 13, 2014 at 1:00 am

A crisp business

Detroit corner grocer keeps tradition fresh

David Kirby says of opening Parker Street Market in Detroit: 'We got super-creative, and now we don't owe anybody anything.' (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

Detroit— David Kirby and Caitlin James are out to prove there’s still a place for the traditional corner grocer.

Walk through the door of their Parker Street Market in Detroit’s West Village and you’re almost transported back in time. A wooden crate of organic apples — 85 cents each — sits on a windowsill next to a similar crate of $1.25 sweet potatoes.Standing across the 800-square-foot space, a hand-made shelf holds a plate of fresh peppers, oranges and eggplants, arranged like a painter’s still life.

Everything in the store, from cookies to carrots, is from local producers.

“We really truly want to be a convenience store for people in the neighborhood,” Kirby said. “We live a block away, and all we really wanted was a place to get good choices of produce and some other products. All we’re doing is giving something we’d like to see in our neighborhood.”

In an age when big-box grocers are expanding their footprints and food offerings, Parker Street Market may be an example of a nationwide shift back toward small and simple. That type of business is even rarer in Detroit, a city that, despite recent additions like Whole Foods and Meijer, lacks access to high-quality produce found in other major cities.

“It’s becoming more and more common,” said Phil Lempert, a national grocery analyst and editor of supermarketguru.com. “We’re seeing consumers wanting a more personal experience. It’s not about piling it high and selling it cheap. Millennials want more passionate food retailers who know their stuff.”

The duo purposely made the space inviting. They removed the iron bars so common on stores in Detroit, and let the light shine unobstructed into their store through big windows. The results have paid off: With no prior advertising, a steady stream of customers has forced Kirby to restock numerous times and add offerings such as coffee, bread and flowers.

Brian Hurttienne, executive director of the Villages Community Development Corp., said the market is another sign of the area’s growth. The villages added new retailers and diners recently, including Detroit Vegan Soul, Craft Work and a yet-to-open coffee shop.

“What they’re adding here is exactly what we need,” he said. “It provides that nice niche for a more well-rounded community.”

Open for business

Kirby and James were able to open their store last month with a minimal amount of money, a rare feat for young entrepreneurs.

James, 30, works at Drought, a Michigan-based organic raw juice company. She used the points she had saved on her corporate credit card to get $1,000 worth of Lowe’s gift cards. Those gift cards were used to buy wood and other materials used inside the store.

They did the electrical work themselves, had carpentry-savvy friends build the checkout counter and shelves, and bought everything else — including a fridge and old-time scale stamped with “The Standard Computing Scale Co., Detroit, Mich.” — on Craigslist.

In all, they opened their own business for less than $2,000.

“You just have to get creative with what resources are available,” said Kirby, a 26-year-old North Carolina native. “There’s something to be said for doing it by the book, having a business plan and finding a loan and investors. But as far as longevity, we got super-creative, and now we don’t owe anybody anything.”

Their suppliers are all local, and James knows many of them from her work with Drought. They include Dexter-based Mindo Chocolate Makers, Livonia-based Door To Door Organics and Detroit companies such as Populace Coffee, Eli Tea and Sister Pie.

The duo is adding more each day as customers request new items. “The whole idea is to be receptive to the people’s needs,” Kirby said.

And their customers are grateful.

'People care about it'

“This is how it used to be,” said Barry Randolph, a 51-year-old West Village resident who was buying spinach, salad and other produce. “You used to be able to walk to everything. It’s so much better than big-box stores.”

It’s hard to distinguish between grocery stores and general retailers these days.

Super-centers like Wal-Mart, Meijer and Target are adding to their produce offerings in an effort to be a one-stop shop. Drug stores like CVS, as well as dollar stores and gas stations, are adding more food options, too. Whole Foods in Midtown offers more than food: There’s space for cooking classes, dance lessons and other community-building events.

Lempert said conventional supermarkets have lost 15 percent market share over the past 10 years to such retailers and drug stores.

But he thinks big-name stores like Whole Foods and Meijer can co-exist with grocers like Parker Street Market.

Room for big, small

“The key is doing a great job,” Lempert said. “Whatever they do, if they do it better than anyone else, they will be very successful.”

Kirby thinks his West Village neighborhood is a good location, even with long-time grocers like Indian Village Market, Harbortown and Parkway Foods in the community.

“There was a time when the small-market grocer had its place, then it lost its place, but now it’s coming back,” he said. “I think people care about it.”

His first few months in business have been robust: Kirby said their sales have “far exceeded” expectations.

And he’s not ruling out growth: There’s plenty of empty wall for additional shelves and there’s more space in the building that’s not being used.

“We really lucked out with this location,” he said. “I don’t see ourselves leaving this community for a long time.”

mmartinez@detroitnews.com
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