How one man in Detroit has ended a food desert and is making everyone wealthier along the way

BY Ben Ebuka Oji January 8, 2024 4:31 PM EDT
Raphael Wright
Raphael Wright. Credit: Keith Horton

Although the US Department of Agriculture stopped using the term “food desert” about a decade ago, the phenomenon of communities and towns lacking access to healthy food repositories is still a worrying tend in the country. But in Jefferson-Chalmers in Detroit, Michigan, Raphael Wright is helping to solve an American structural problem with not only a neighborhood grocery shop but an investment vehicle that could be replicated in other parts of the country.

Wright’s Neighborhood Grocery has been an answer to a decades long food desert that has been called the “Venice of Detroit” owing to its location in the canal district of the Great Lake State.

Wright initiated this project with the aim of revitalizing his community and making a lasting positive impact on the well-being of his fellow residents.

“I started the journey of opening up a grocery store in Detroit because I wanted to rebuild the neighborhood I came from. You have to start with controlling, distributing, and growing the food that’s in the community and the people who are a part of that have to be from the community as well,” Wright told The Michigan Chronicle.

Decades-long Problem Solved

For several years, Jefferson-Chalmers has been without a grocery store, making it a challenging task for a settlement where one out of every four households does not have a car. Neighborhood Grocery, started in 2016, is therefore a beacon of hope, countering the recent trend of Detroit losing numerous grocery stores and being inundated with dollar stores, which further exacerbates the lack of access to healthy and affordable food.

But Wright’s initiative is gradually restoring the sense of familiarity and comfort that was once a staple of this neighborhood.

A Social Investment and Income-Generating Venture for the Natives

Wright envisions Neighborhood Grocery as a catalyst for positive change in his community. His vision is to address the scarcity of groceries while also creating opportunities for local entrepreneurs and residents of Detroit that may be otherwise difficult to come by in larger corporations.

One of the key aspects of Wright’s plan is to empower the community by allowing them to become stakeholders in the store. By offering equity shares to community members, investors not only have the chance to earn a portion of the profits but also enjoy product discounts and exclusive access to special offers and events.

Currently, Neighborhood Grocery has garnered investments from over 400 individuals, all of whom are Michiganders, with a majority hailing from Detroit. The average investment stands at $75, while the highest recorded investment thus far is $10,000, with a minimum investment threshold of $50.

Milestone of Success

Neighborhood Grocery came to fruition through years of unwavering dedication, perseverance, and resolve. In 2017, Wright benefited from a GoFundMe campaign that helped to recapitalize his business. This was after he had become a member of FoodLab Detroit and actively participated in TechTown Detroit’s Retail Bootcamp, while also seeking guidance from the Michigan Good Food Fund.

In October 2017, he received a Motor City Match Space, and over the course of the last few years, he has engaged in various food accelerators and bootcamps, leading up to the official launch of an equity crowdfunding campaign in January 2020. In June 2020, he finalized a lease agreement for a 5,000 sq. foot space in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood, where his vision has now come to fruition after extensive renovations.

With a shrewd business mindset aimed at expanding the prosperity of Neighborhood Grocery. Wright acquired a half-acre plot of land in July 2020 to establish a market garden. This garden serves the purpose of cultivating fruits and vegetables for the grocery store and enabling the self-distribution of fresh farm products to customers and other establishments. Additionally, he formed partnerships with local gardens and produce suppliers within the community to ensure a diverse and well-stocked inventory for the store.

In February 2023, Wright got a grant of $85,000 from Motor City Match, a program facilitated by the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. This program provides financial support and connects emerging businesses with essential resources and physical spaces to foster their growth.

Applause and Self-fulfillment

Wright acknowledges that his entrepreneurial journey was far from effortless. However, he takes great joy in the fact that his dream became a reality after seven years of crowdfunding and distributing grocery boxes to combat food insecurity.

“It was a lot of work that I didn’t expect it to be and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing when I started, and years later, here we are now, The neighbors have been waiting for this project for a long time. I knew friends and family would support [me] but it’s great to see people in the neighborhood come and check us out,” he said.

Wright aspires for his enterprise to empower individuals to recognize their ability to govern their environment. He explained:

I’m Black — I’m aware of racism, discrimination, all of that stuff, but at some point, that is going to become an excuse if you don’t start doing your own type of work. That’s what this store is a testament of for me. I just went out and did the work [and] sighted an issue in the community. There are not enough healthy food stores or stores that can really supply a well-balanced diet for families in the city of Detroit, and I went and built it from the ground up.

Neighborhood Grocery has received an enthusiastic response from local residents and those outside the community. According to Wright, the feedback from residents has been extremely positive.