This post is part of my ongoing response to lazy journalists like Mr. Hansen who love to echo silly hyperbole because it's so shocking (whether or not it's actually true). This is just a humble post about how we manage not to starve to death here in the city of Detroit despite a lack of national chains. "But where do you shop?!" is a question I get all the time when people find out we're raising a family in Detroit. It's a question I remember asking myself back in the late 90s when I first started coming here to visit a house full of artists, musicians, and urban gardeners that my friend knew well. I remembered mentioning some hand-wringing magazine article I'd read about "food deserts." But of course what I really wondered was, How far do you have to drive to get to the Kroger? This presumes, of course, that national chains are the best place to buy groceries. Over the last few years I've learned that's not at all true, and sometimes it's a good thing that Detroit doesn't have any large chain supermarkets. Honey Bee Market La Colmena is a good example why.
A few days after we moved into our current house, some kindly neighbors brought over a 64 oz container of fresh salsa and bag of house-made tortilla chips from Honey Bee Market La Colmena. From the first bite, we were hooked. I sat down the other day with Ken Koehler and his wife Tammy Alfaro-Koehler outside their Detroit grocery store, and they cracked open a tub of the same fresh salsa and a bag of their chips while we chatted about the history of the store. It felt just right.
[This is a long post with a lot of photos, so click to continue reading on a separate page]
Honey Bee Market was opened by Tammy's grandparents Gerardo and Maria Alfaro back in 1956, operating out of the first floor of their house on the corner of Bagley & 17th St., and catering to the growing Hispanic population of Southwest Detroit:
The store soon developed a loyal customer base, and Tammy's father Alex eventually went into business with his dad, taking over the store with his wife Francisca in 1981. Tammy practically grew up in the store, she says, and by the 1980s it had expanded into a larger brick structure next door:
The expanding market, widely-known for its excellent chorizo (still made on site to a secret family recipe), was just down Bagley St. from where Ken Koehler grew up surrounded by a group of Hispanic friends. Eventually he and Tammy fell in love and married. Ken worked in the grocery industry (managing a respected independent grocer in the suburbs) and in 1996 the couple decided to take over Honey Bee from Tammy's parents. They represent the third generation of this family to own and run this store. Ten years after taking over, the couple oversaw a massive expansion into a 15,000 square-foot full-service supermarket, with the old space now used for fresh food preparation and office space.
At this point it is tempting to write something about how Ken and Tammy chose to expand their business in the shadow of the most iconic symbol of Detroit's decay, the 18-story abandoned Michigan Central Station, but the reality is that---by virtue of where the sun rises and sets---the hulking ruin always casts its shadow in the opposite direction. "Still, people said we were crazy to sink all our money here. When we started that old white house was the only other thing around," Ken says, pointing at an older house surrounded by newly-constructed infill housing. "Now there's a neighborhood here again."
From the supermarket's bustling parking lot or just down the street of this neighborhood of well-tended lawns and tidy new homes, it is possible to view the classically-ornamented train station and imagine a future where Detroit can live with its ruins without being ruined by them.
When I arrive at Honey Bee to do my weekly shopping and talk to Ken and Tammy, three of their employees in distinctive red shirts are cleaning trash from the sidewalk along Bagley Ave. or raising crisp American flags. Later I tell Ken that whenever I hear people talking about the store, someone always mentions how clean it is. Ken says it's simply a matter of respect for his customers. "I drive my workers crazy, but I've always got them out there cleaning up the parking lot." He humbly points out that a lot of the other business owners along Bagley have followed suit, neatening their properties. "I'm not saying it started because of us, but now we all are doing our part to make the neighborhood even better."
The owners' commitment to keeping a beautiful space is apparent everywhere you look inside the store. The produce and even the cans of tomatoes and black beans are artfully displayed in a way that evokes an earlier retail age. When you walk in the door, you are greeted with free samples of some of the best products produced in house: fresh tortilla chips, three kinds of homemade salsa and some damn good guacamole. I can't leave the store without a tub of each salsa and they never last more than a couple days in our house. The kids love shopping here because of the many dozens of pinatas that line the walls and peek out from behind lovingly-crafted displays.
The produce department is always full stocked with just about everything you need. While we try to buy local produce from the farmers at Eastern Market whenever we can, we know if there's something else we need (or something out of season), Honey Bee will have it, and it will be fresh, delicious, and affordable.
If you don't want to buy a dozen Honey Bee tamales ($6.99, with free salsa, a meal for an entire family), they also sell everything you need to make your own:
There's a butcher and deli counter that stretches the width of the store, and a huge selection of locally-made tortillas and Mexican baked goods:
The meat department has everything you'd get at a chain grocer, plus cool stuff like tongues, sweetbreads, tripe, and beef cheeks:
And does any Wal-Mart Supercenter have this many choices of hot sauce?
Or four different Loteria options?
All of this is not to say that Honey Bee is only a Mexican grocery store. With the expansion, it has really become a full-service supermarket with the added benefit of Mexican specialties. In a city with a reputation for residents who must cross into the suburbs to do grocery shopping, Honey Bee actually draws many suburban shoppers who come for specialties they can't get anywhere else. Given its proximity to the Ambassador Bridge, there are always a few Canadian license plates in the parking lot (and even more when the Canadian dollar is strong). Ken explains that a lot of the Canadian customers are Mennonites who've lived in southern Mexico and now cross the northern border to get the ingredients they miss.
But beyond this wide draw of regular customers from far away, Honey Bee has really become a downtown supermarket beloved by all Detroiters. There is no denying that many Detroit neighborhoods are tragically under-served by retailers offering healthy produce, but the entire city isn't that way. Chris Hansen's gross misstatement about "only eight" grocery stores in the city really ignores the reality that so many Detroiters live close to suburban borders where plenty of national chain grocery stores willingly accept Detroit dollars. But for those who live downtown, far from the suburbs, there are still quite a few really nice independent supermarkets (University Foods in Midtown, Harbortown on the East Riverfront, Indian Village Market, as well as dozens of other independents affiliated with Spartan Foods, a regional grocery distributor; some are awful, some aren't so bad). Further, thriving Southwest Detroit is served by several other excellent Supermercados, including E & L and La Fiesta Market (both with insanely low prices) as well as dozens of smaller mom-and-pop grocery stores.
The footnote to all the journalistic hysteria and hyperbole is that while Detroit may not have any national grocery chains, we do have more urban farms and gardens than any other city in America and we boast some of the best independent grocers around. Honey Bee Market, so close to downtown, has become sort of the de facto supermarket for all types of downtown shoppers. Hispanic grandmothers inspect the cactus alongside gringo foodies clutching Rick Bayless recipes; hipsters park fixed-gear bikes next to professionals in spandex out for a lunchtime ride; wealthy condo dwellers wait in line behind mothers paying with their Bridge cards. Plenty of shoppers don't even go for the Mexican specialties: the quality produce, overall cleanliness, and customer service alone are enough of a draw. If you're the kind of shopper who needs the sort of branded soda or cereals you get at a chain grocer, Honey Bee still has you covered:
Lately, customers have requested the store carry more local products, and Ken and Tammy have responded by carrying locally-sourced milk and ice cream from Calder Farms and coffee from Great Lakes, who roast a special blend for the store. A friend of mine just told me a story about a guy who needed fennel seeds, and after calling around to a few friends he received a call from an unfamiliar number. It was Ken at Honey Bee; he'd heard about his predicament and was calling to let him know that they carried fennel seeds. Ken and Tammy exude this sort of enthusiasm and care for their customers. "We expanded the store for our customers," Ken tells me. "We value their loyalty so much, and felt they really deserved more." La Colmena means "Beehive" in Spanish. The store usually feels like one, with more than a dozen employees making sure every inch of the store is shining, every mango is in its place, and every customer is being helped.
When I ask Ken and Tammy what their secret is, how they've thrived in a city where the common meme is failure and despair, Ken's response comes quick and easy: "We care so much." We're always learning and listening, he says. And because of that, he feels, after fifty-four years of doing business, today the store is better than it's ever been.
Tammy agrees, and says they feel they do play a role in a community that so many people wrongly think is hopeless. "You have to have faith, and hope, that things will get better," she says. "And everybody has to contribute."
Ken points to a row of hanging flower pots and plants sitting out in front of the store. "We know they're going to get stolen sometimes," he says. "But we still put them out every day. You can't give up hope," he says, echoing his wife. "You have to keep going."
[the last photo of Tammy and her daughter is from the Honey Bee Market facebook page]