Walter Robb believes Whole Foods will find a following with its first store in the Detroit. But he even admitted the opening is "obviously stretching a bit" in a city that narrowly avoided a state takeover earlier in April.
"We believe it's the right thing to do," the Whole Foods co-CEO said in a speech Friday before the Detroit Economic Club, according to The Detroit News. "I think it was Henry Ford who said a company that just makes money is a pretty poor company. We are committed to bring high-quality food to as many people as we can."
Still, Mr. Robb stressed the store — to open in 2013 with government incentives — will be profitable given his belief that Detroit remains underserved by full-service supermarkets. Studies have shown Detroiters spend more than $200 million a year at suburban grocers partly because it hasn't been able to attract a national grocer in its leaner years.
He also spent much of his presentation marveling at the strong local food movement, citing Avalon Bakery, Charley's Ballpark Mustard and other businesses. City officials heralded the opening as a sign of progress for the city. Agreed Mr. Robb, "This city is at an inflection point."
The store's prospects are expected to be helped by being situated in Midtown, an area surrounded by Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center and the Detroit Institute of Arts and Orchestra Hall. The Associated Press said that while the area still suffers from vacancies and lacks the "bustling, thriving feel of some of those larger cities' neighborhoods in transition," it's seeing some revitalization with the help of startups and rehabilitation projects.
Critics questioned the opening's logic given the city's crippling debt load and an unemployment rate ranking among the highest in the country. Kenneth Dalto, a Michigan retail analyst, believes that for Whole Foods will have to emphasize more brand names and stress its recent push toward lower-priced foods. He noted that Zaccaro's Market, a gourmet grocer, opened in Midtown in April 2008 and closed less than a year later.
"The problem is they were too gourmet — this is not a gourmet area," Mr. Dalto said.
Yet Mr. Robb promised residents would get the full Whole Foods experience.
"This is not going to be a half Whole Foods store," Mr. Robb said, according to the Detroit Free Press. "You're getting our A game here. You're not going to get anything less than our very best."
What do you think of the overall potential for Whole Foods to succeed in struggling inner cities?