ASK ELi: Groceries Downtown?

Friday, January 16, 2015, 7:30 am
Alice Dreger

The question: Any hope of groceries downtown?

If you live in or near downtown—which more and more permanent residents seem to be doing—there are actually a few nearby places you can now walk or bike to get some basic groceries.

One is CVS, which has expanded its grocery section in the last year to include a couple of aisles of goods. I frequently use CVS (which is about a ten-minute walk from my house) to pick up peanut butter, eggs, canned beans, cereal, and makings for chocolate chip cookies. It’s not a regular grocery store (and it costs a bit more), but they have a lot of staples.

A very different option in terms of style is the recently-opened Jonna’s 2 Go. Jonna's is located in the wedge created where Michigan Avenue and Grand River Avenue split, right across from People’s Church. Jonna’s is a honest-to-goodness urban bodega of the kind you find in neighborhoods of big cities.

As you can see from the photo above, taken at Jonna’s, the small store has flour, sugar, canned goods, pasta, and much more, including pet food, toilet paper, eggs, milk, and so on. There’s also a hot food area that serves fried chicken, pizza, and the like. Like a classic urban bodega, Jonna’s also has a ton of alcohol for sale—and a wide variety, too.

This, of course, means that most of the customers are young men there for the hot food and liquor. The cashiers always seem amused by this middle-aged woman coming in to buy limes and lemons—but because Jonna’s caters to the cocktail crowd, they almost always have good limes and lemons, which I’m always seeming to lack for some dish I’m cooking.

Like a neighborhood bodega, Jonna’s feels family-run. Over winter break, I went in for a lime and the owner apologized profusely that, with the students gone, she hadn’t been stocking fresh limes. Because the selection that day was past its prime, she let me pick whichever I wanted without charging me. (You won’t find that at CVS.)

It’s true that Jonna’s doesn’t have the tidy little produce section I’d find in a bodega in Chicago or New York. Fresh produce (beyond cocktail citrus) is hard to find anywhere downtown, unless you count bananas at Espresso Royale. But there are two places downtown where you can pick up freshly baked bread products, namely Bruegger’s Bagels and Cosi’s. More than once I’ve popped into Cosi to pick up freshly-baked bread to go with a stew or soup I’m cooking at home. The baker at Cosi will make a "loaf" (about an inch high and as big as a small pizza) for you fresh while you have a drink or go run other downtown errands.

This isn’t the kind of “grocery shopping” most Midwesterners recognize as such—I’m still a New Yorker, I guess—but if you live near downtown and are committed to avoiding your car as much as possible, as I am, it works surprisingly well for patching up the gaps in the cupboard and fridge, especially when the Valley Court-based East Lansing farmers’ market is open, from June through October.

Any hope of a real grocery store downtown? I put that question four times this week to the City Planning staff and they never answered, which suggests the answer is “not yet.” Planning staff have explained at public meetings that grocery store chains want a lot of building square footage (all on one floor, typically) and a lot of dedicated parking spaces for customers, and that’s tough in a downtown. Staff have also explained that we don’t yet have the downtown population density needed to sustain a grocery store, although we may be getting closer to that if more big developments happen.

Parking may always be a limiting factor for getting a grocery store downtown, although I’ve noticed that in Chicago, larger downtown grocery stores overcome this problem by having garage parking that requires you show a recent receipt from the store to exit without paying. It seems to work well to limit use of garage spots to mostly grocery customers. And in Bloomington, Indiana, where I went to graduate school, the coop downtown did fine with virtually no parking by relying on student and faculty foot traffic.

But the Midwest tends to think big when it thinks grocery stories. Frank Guglielmi, Senior Director of Communications for Meijer, tells me, “a typical Meijer supercenter is 200,000 square feet. A store that size, along with the required parking and green space that goes with it, requires a pretty large piece of property. Finding a store location in a downtown setting is more difficult for a supercenter because you need a very large parcel of property.”

Guglielmi adds that Meijer has opted to “continue to invest in our existing stores, which includes recent detailed remodels of our stores in Lansing (S. Pennsylvania Road) East Lansing (Lake Lansing Road) and Okemos (W. Grand River.)”

If you look at how produce moves by train and then truck in this country, what you see is that places like East Lansing are late in the system of delivery—which means less desirable produce. Meijer has the kind of large customer base that allows them to provide fresher produce; Goodrich did not, as many customers noted.

Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, a chain, will be moving into the old Goodrich location once the redevelopment at Trowbridge Road is complete. Fresh Thyme specializes in “healthy, fresh, and organic” food (like Whole Foods) and is affiliated with Meijer. For those residents in the Red Cedar neighborhood, it will be walkable, and for those of us living in or near downtown, bikeable, but like most grocery stores, it is designed to have plenty of parking.

If, like me, you find yourself biking for your bigger grocery runs, you might want to invest in good, waterproof panniers. I got mine through Hunter Seyfarth at Evergreen Cycles downtown, and together the two bright yellow reflective latch-on bags hold the equivalent of about four paper shopping bags. Biking up the Harrison hill with two full panniers of groceries leaves me feeling like I am entitled to pig out on anything in those satchels.


ELi is a reader-supported, nonprofit, noncommercial news source for the people of East Lansing. Without reader donations, ELi cannot operate. Donate online or donate by check. Your contributions are tax deductible!