Whole Foods exec sees opportunity in Detroit’s urban farming, artisanal food scene

Red Elk Banks, executive operations coordinator for Whole Foods Market, is playing a role in one of the bright spots in Detroit’s tumultuous recent history – overseeing the construction of a Whole Foods Market in the city’s Midtown neighborhood. Detroit has long been (wrongly) perceived as a “food desert” for its lack of any national-chain groceries, so the fact that one of the country’s most upscale chains would choose the city for a store made national news when it was announced in 2011. A member of Leech Lake Band of the Ojibwe, Banks grew up in Minnesota. Whole Foods Market anticipates a May or June opening for its Detroit store.

Bridge: We both know the image of Detroit as a “food desert” is untrue, and yet, that’s how the media spun the story when Whole Foods announced it was locating here: The food desert finally gets a national grocery chain, and it’s Whole Foods. What do you think of that?

A: I think it’s unfortunate, because Detroit has a really pretty vibrant local food economy. We never saw Detroit as a food desert, but as a resource-rich community. With urban farming coming online, the rise of artisan food producers – you have this nice mix of people who are really interested and concerned with what food is. We saw a lot of potential. Ultimately, that’s what drew us to Detroit.

Bridge: Some of the local grocers, the independent grocers, are probably going to be resentful of you. You made a big splash, you got some tax breaks. Do you think there’s room for everybody?

A: Absolutely. Detroit is a large metropolitan city. There are 700,000 residents here. All the research we looked at indicates there’s room. There’s quite a large market for grocers within the city. So the fact so many people have to leave the city to get their grocery needs met tells us there’s room for all kinds of operators to exist within the city.

Bridge: What is your plan to work with local food producers?

A: We already are. We have five existing stores within Michigan already, so there are a lot of local food vendors that we’ve worked with (in the past). Since we made the announcement with Detroit specifically, we’ve started doing our investigative work. We’ve made investments with Avalon International Breads as part of our local producer loan program. We’re going to be hosting a vendor fair Feb. 28. We’re working with Eastern Market. We have a lot of different avenues. We only believe we’ll be successful if we can showcase the best the Detroit food economy has to offer.

Bridge: What is the local producer loan program?

A: It’s a loan fund to help local vendors. It’s company-wide. We committed $10 million to help vendors who are thinking of expansion, but maybe don’t have access to capital. It’s about us supporting local and regional food economies. With Avalon, the loan is part of their package to expand their wholesale baking operation, to separate it from their retail and give them some upgraded equipment. Normally, in our stores, we produce our own breads. Here in Midtown, we’re going to take them from Avalon. Their focus on organics, the fact they’ve been here so long and they produce great quality stuff makes them a natural fit to showcase here.

Bridge: What are you doing with the Eastern Market?

A: We have a great relationship with them. They are the center of the regional food hub here, so it extends to us supporting them financially. We helped out with the Shed 5 renovations, some dollars toward marketing. What Eastern Market provides is the open air food market. We offer a retail setting. You can’t go to Eastern Market every day, so we hope to be able to fill that role. We also want to work with vendors there to expand their markets, not just in Detroit, but Chicago, West Bloomfield, etc.

Red Elk Banks says Whole Foods Market sees Detroit as a huge business opportunity, in contrast to the “food desert” image that many have of Michigan’s largest city. Whole Foods’ first outlet in Detroit should be open by June. (Bridge photo/Nancy Derringer)

Bridge: So you’ve spread some money around. Is that your standard M.O. when you move into a new area?

A: Our M.O. is to support the local community. That’s a core value for us. We’re looking for ways we can jumpstart what’s going on and build the market for our store before we open. It’s important to make these investments early. Avalon is a great producer but it’s still small. We do a lot of volume. They’re already running their ovens 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so getting them ready to scale up in advance of our store is a strategic decision both for Avalon and for us.

Bridge: You’re originally from Minnesota. What drew you to this company?

A: I grew up harvesting wild rice and maple syrup on my home reservation, so I always had a deep connection to what food is about. When I first set foot in a Whole Foods Market, I can honestly tell you I felt a sense of peace. I felt, here’s a place that cares about food and is willing to take a stand about quality.

Bridge: What about the popular perception of Whole Foods? Whole Paycheck, really expensive, for yuppies only? Here you are in a poor city. How do you manage that image?

A: We believe strongly that fresh, healthy local foods are important to any community, to any human being. And we want to demonstrate that our foods are as accessible as anyone else’s. It’s a misnomer to continue to believe that Whole Foods is a place only rich people can shop at. Sure, you can shop our aisles and buy the very best of what we have, and spend a good amount of money. But if you look for high-quality grains, quality local produce, there’s a whole different picture that emerges. People who write about Whole Paycheck are the ones who are buying imported French cheese, but not looking at the short-grain organic brown rice in our bulk department that you can get for 99 cents a pound.

Bridge: Does anyone here ever ask you about your father (American Indian Movement co-founder Dennis Banks)? Do people make that connection?

A: Some people do. My father’s done a lot of amazing things. I’m excited when people can recall that and understand that the struggles of human beings to achieve recognition for basic human existence, it’s a great thing. I’m honored when people recall that.

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

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Lucy Bland
Thu, 01/31/2013 - 11:26am
I'm happy to hear Whole Foods is moving into Detroit. Just to clarify, there are several "food deserts" in Detroit and the surrounding areas. It's a specific designation defined by the USDA as areas that lack grocery stores within easy access of residents (that's an overly simplified definition).
Mrs. A
Mon, 02/04/2013 - 5:41pm
As long as none of the employees is hoping to receive Fascistic health insurance, Whole Foods could do well in Detroit.
Tue, 02/19/2013 - 7:36am
My company has been a gourmet food product mfr in Michigan since 1981. I'm very familiar with WF and the numerous fantastic, family-owned specialty supermarkets in the Detroit metropolitan area, as well as the Eastern Mkt. The incentives being offered WF are very disappointing considering the vast contributions the family-owned supermarkets have made despite Detroit (and Michigan's) economy . . . . Thumbs down on this one, Rick Snyder.