Inside Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology in Detroit, students can have chicken quesadillas, brown cheesy rice, mixed vegetables, and other healthy choices for lunch.
Getting healthy foods at convenience stores around Timbuktu is a little different.
Motor City Marketplace, located on Mack and St. Jean, is roughly walking distance from the school, is larger than the average convenience store and provides some grocery items. You’ll find a couple of cabbages, lettuce, some tomatoes and cold cut meats. However, the freezer is packed with pizzas and other selections. The store also sells sandwich meat, bread and canned goods.
That’s not what the owner, Louie Nafso, would like to carry. He wants healthier options on his shelves. But it’s not easy to be a successful corner grocery store in Detroit’s neighborhoods. The population decline means fewer patrons. Few patrons mean less demand for healthier foods.
That’s a problem for the health of the neighborhood and the health of the store.
“We want to be your local corner store,” says Nafso, who opened the store in 1981 and has watched the neighborhood population dwindle. “We always offered meat and produce. As time moved on, trial and error kept happening, it wasn’t selling. So we had to make a choice in order for us to be able to stay in business and be of service to the community.”
Healthier items usually are perishable, have a short shelf life and have to be thrown out if not purchased. That hits his bottom line pretty hard.
“You’ve got to be able to sell the case per item,” Nafso says. On average, he can’t order items for less than a dozen per case, with roughly 90 days to sell them.
He refers to these as off-the-shelf items. This might include the condiments section where you might have 60 to 120 days of freshness. But, he points out you might not be able to turn the item over within six months to a year. The item will likely expire, especially if it comes in a pack of 24 or 48.
“In a small business like ours, you’re not going to push 48 items in such a short time,” Nafso says. “If the packaging would have come out in dozens versus 48s, 24s or 12s, then you’re more applicable to try to carry that item. This way, you can give the customer a longer date for it to sit on their shelves.”
He tried putting some granola bars up front to compete with the candy bars. That didn’t work. He sold four and they “became outdated, collected dust,” he says.
Still, Nafso is committed to finding fresh produce for his customers. It’s a personal mission. Recently, he purchased apples, bananas, oranges, grapes, lemons, tomatoes, green peppers, lettuce and cabbages because he wants his customers to have more options. He goes for the best bargains so he can pass those savings along to the customer.
“You have to remember, I’m buying at retail price,” Nafso says. “I can’t buy at wholesale price because I can’t buy cases of these items, they’ll go bad on you.”
Nafso’s customers are for the most part low-income and often don’t have transportation so it is difficult for them to get to larger stores selling healthier foods. Those stores have a much larger customer base, which allows them to offer more perishable items.
Sure, the occasional customer comes into Motor City Marketplace to buy a cart full of groceries for $80, but that’s not typical.
Nafso would like to see alternatives available for independents such as him, so that he could balance the healthy choices with the popular choices. That would create a win-win situation for everyone.
“There are a lot of things that play a variable to our business that will enable us to do a better job if the packaging was less in quantity,” Nafso says. “When it comes to the healthy choices, we’re looking to carry more, but we need the awareness of the consumer. If they’re available would you buy them? If you’re going to buy it, I’d be happy to supply it. We’ll condense some of the aisles down to make room.”
— Photo credit: Paul Engstrom