A sustainable, locally focused Whole Foods Market adds to the revitalization of Detroit’s Midtown district
Urban «food deserts» have been a problem in major cities, like economically hard-hit Detroit, for years. But now there is a bright light on the horizon of the Motor City’s retail landscape with the June opening of a Whole Foods Market in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood, a flourishing area a few miles from downtown. The new, ground-up construction opened to much fanfare, free food samples and speech-giving politicians, plus throngs of eager customers who no longer need drive to the tony suburbs of Troy or Rochester Hills to shop at a Whole Foods Market.
The new store also is near Detroit’s Eastern Market, the country’s oldest public market and a local food mecca, which encompasses not only a year-round market hall, but also more than 250 independent vendors and merchants doing business in the area. Collectively, these purveyors have contributed to the city’s foodie culture, which takes in urban farming, of which Detroit is a leader, as well as artisan producers of myriad trendy comestibles.
At 25,580 sq. ft., the Midtown store was years in the making (Whole Foods received incentives to build) and is the chains smallest footprint in the Midwest. As a chain, Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods operates more than 340 stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The new Detroit store serves the neighborhoods full-time residents, along with suburban commuters and visitors to the nearby Detroit Institute of Arts and other cultural attractions calling Midtown home.
Whole Foods employs a unique, decentralized operational structure — the company is divided into numerous separate and autonomous geographic divisions, complete with divisional presidents — which commends creativity and customization, not cookie-cutter design. «We design stores with our core values in mind,» says Christine Sturch, Midwest senior interior design and branding coordinator responsible for stores in eight states and Canada. Among these values are environmental stewardship and support of local communities. «Every decision and element in our stores ties back to our mission and values. No two stores are alike,» she adds.
Green elements in the new store, though, are consistent with the chains sustainable philosophy and include recycled structural steel, energy-efficient glass, a «white» roof able to reflect heat gain, highly efficient refrigeration to reduce thestores carbon footprint, LED illumination for signage and frozen cases, and low-flow sensors in faucets and toilets, as well as recycled tile and glass throughout. As for foodstuffs, there’s an emphasis on Whole Foods’ 365 private-label brand and prepackaged foods to keep prices in check with the neighborhood, plus loads of locally made or grown goods.
But, what makes the store a standout for Detroiters is its connection to the city’s industrial and cultural leanings. That connection begins at the parking lot, where four large exterior murals welcoming customers are the result of a competition Whole Foods initiated among local artists. The artists were selected from more than 100 entrants by a panel of 10 Detroiters.
Not only did Whole Foods look for local artists, but they also sought out two local firms for collaboration. «When we began concepting this stores environment, we immediately thought of Ken Nisch and his team at JGA (based in Southfield, Mich.), and Tony Camilletti and the D|Fab team (based in Madison Heights, Mich.),» Sturch says. «These companies have a passion for great retail design, but also a connection to the Detroit community.»
Typical Whole Foods Market stores are in design and development for about a year, Sturch says, but the Detroit stores timeline was about twice that amount. «We wanted to give the Mid-town Detroit community something special,» she adds. «We wanted the store to feel fresh, make food the hero and create a fun shopping experience where you discover something around every corner.»
Tony Camilletti, executive vice president of D|Fab, says the Midtown store was «truly a creation of local proportions, with numerous area designers, artists, craftsman and food specialists involved in coming together to bring the essence of Detroit to life, with overt homage and subtle references.»
Among those subtle touches is a repealing design — derived from the streets of the city itself — that serves as a visual anchor. «We focused on taking the context of Detroit, which is a French city, and adapting the radial grid pattern of the city’s layout,» says Nisch, JGA’s chairman. «We then translated it as a visual element that could be applied on walls and other expanses.’ Customers will (ind that grid motif on entry windows and walls, but the rest of the store is visually more exuberant.
«Nothing was held back at our initial meetings,» Sturch says. «Ideas ranged from soffitts made out of fishing poles, because Michigan is a leading producer of fishing poles, to walls covered in broom bristles.» While the fishing poles didn’t make the cut, she notes, the broom wall treatment did, as did other non-traditional elements. «Each and every one was customized to highlight our connection to this local community and great tasting quality food,» she says.
Of course, signage helps customers find that great lasting food. DlFab was instrumental in creating some of the store’s dimensional perimeter signage. One of the boldest examples is the pizza and sandwich order/pick-up area, which united varying scraps of salvaged and faded two-dimensional metal signs, found thanks to the assistance of local «pickers, with brighter 3-D letters calling out «pizza» and «sammies.» Other signs, such as a vintage red «Bakery» sign over the stores in-store bakery department, were found mostly intact and were brought to code. Tile work in the cheese department was the work of yet another local artisan. Shoppers also will find the work of local artists near the stores Community Room, including a tile mural replica of the city of Detroit, which calls attention to the issue of access to affordable food.
Customers who choose to eat in will find tables made from old car and truck hoods, a continuation of the Motor City feel. Vintage Motown records applied to check lane lights also enhance the Detroit vibe. While the provenance of reclaimed wood seating booths and salvaged brick sourced from a local building materials reuse center is less obvious, the effect supports Whole Foods’ commitment to sustainability. «But, the interesting thing is, despite the one-of-a-kind localized references, you still know you’re in a Whole Foods store,» Camilletti says.