Keenan: Detroit grocer offers free ride home

Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News

If you still believe Detroit is a food desert, Joe Gappy, owner of Prince Valley Market on Michigan Avenue, will give you a free ride home after shopping at his store just to prove you wrong.

“Detroit is known as a place where fresh food is not sold, but it’s not true,” Gappy says. “The food desert label is really a myth.”

About a month ago, Prince Valley began offering a free ride home to anyone who spends $50 or more in groceries. It was Gappy’s way to appeal to a wider market, maybe even get the word out to hipsters in Midtown and newcomers living in the city that Whole Foods and Eastern Market aren’t the only game in town.

There’s no registration, nothing to do ahead of time. You simply grocery shop and spend more than $50. At checkout, you tell the cashier you want your free ride home and they call Uber.

At first, there were no takers. “I think because people didn’t believe it,” says Gappy, laughing. “But in the last couple weeks we’ve had 20 or so take advantage of it. I’m sure as winter comes, it will become very popular.”

Gappy says he got the idea for the program from a conversation with Jill Ford, who, as a special adviser to Detroit Mayor Duggan, heads the City of Detroit’s innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives. Ford chose to come to Detroit last year from the San Francisco Bay area. The Harvard grad with a Wharton MBA says she is tickled that Gappy instituted her idea.

“I’m so complimented he gave me credit,” Ford said in a phone interview.

The two met at a Michigan Avenue business association gathering in early May and the naturally affable Gappy encouraged her to come tour the grocery store that prides itself on catering to a smorgasbord of diverse cultures. “Their meat market is amazing,” Ford said. “It was a great reminder of home.”

Ford said she brought up the idea of the free ride program as a way for Gappy “to connect people to food and to bring food to people.”

She applauded Gappy for being “very proactive with an ambitious perspective on bringing new ideas and opportunities not only for his store but the city of Detroit as well.”

And if that sounds like high praise, Gappy seems to have earned every bit of it. Prince Valley celebrated its 40th anniversary of being in the city this year with a big festival two weeks ago. They said thanks to the community by offering free barbecue, baked cakes, face-painting, Tigers ticket giveaways and free soccer balls for the kids.

Gappy’s father, Hani Gappy, now 72, came to Detroit from Baghdad in 1967 and opened his first of two liquor stores on Cass and Peterboro. In 1975, the opened the grocery store in its original location across the street on Michigan Avenue, just east of Livernois. When that burned down in 1999, they purchased a nearby building.

They have always catered to a diverse community.

“Everybody thinks there are a lot Mexicans who live here which is correct, but it’s a big Latin pool.” The clientele includes Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Hispanics from Honduras, African Americans, people of Polish and German descent who have lived in the neighborhood for decades. And now, with nearby Corktown booming, there’s also an influx of younger, more affluent shoppers.”

“We’re only racist toward one color,” Gappy says, which is followed by an uncomfortably long wait for the punch line. Finally, he says with an enormous gotcha smile: “It’s green! The color of money.”

As a Chaldean, Gappy lived in the city for decades, more recently at the Riverfront apartments before moving to Oakland County when his wife became pregnant in 2008. ( They now have two children ages 7 and 4.) He’s lived through the city’s dark days, and he has a long history of being involved in this west-side neighborhood.

“We’ve been successful for 40 years because we cater to the people who shop here,” he says “We take care of them.”

Along with the on-site bakery that makes custom cakes, there’s an in-house post office, a cellphone store, a bank that offers free money orders and payroll check cashing and Western Union so patrons can send money to family back home. Gappy is often donating food, like the free cakes that fed several hundred at Mass Mob at St. Hedwig Catholic Church around the corner last Sunday. He gives away $200 every month to local families who win a contest in the grocery store. And he’s most proud of his work in charter schools. As a member of the board of the Hope of Detroit Academy, he is thrilled to be part of the effort that recently secured $10 million to help build a brand new high school in the neighborhood.

It’s only natural that Gappy would find it difficult to welcome Whole Foods with open arms. After all, says Gappy: “They got tax breaks and money from the city, and they are a multimillion-dollar company. We’ve been here for 40 years and what do we get? A tax bill! Of course it’s going to hurt.”

But Gappy says he expressed his dismay to the mayor and in response: “Mike Duggan has been to the store, and he wrote me a really nice letter.” So no hard feelings.

Whether we’ve completely shed the food desert moniker is still a matter of debate. But in the discourse, it does seem clear that Prince Valley is a hidden gem that shouldn’t be in hiding.

If you’re in the market for an incredible array of marinated meats, unusual cuts like pig knuckles, an entire aisle of south of the border cuisine, Gappy is dangling a free ride home as an incentive.