Independent grocers Ric’s Food Center in Mount Pleasant and Park Street Market in Kalamazoo take innovative approaches to the ever-changing grocery business.
By: Shandra Martinez
In many ways, Ric’s Food Center and Park Street Market couldn’t be more different. Ric’s is the oldest locally-owned grocery store in Mount Pleasant, a community in rural mid-Michigan. Park Street Market is a version of a successful Detroit model transplanted to Kalamazoo in 2010 to increase access to fresh produce for an underserved urban neighborhood.
Independent grocers like Ric’s and Park Street play an integral role in their communities by providing access to healthy food options, especially in areas where food deserts exist.
Collectively, U.S. independent grocers account for one-third of all grocery sales, more than $250 billion, and more than 1.1 million jobs, according to the National Grocers Association.
Although Kalamazoo is a college town, home to Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College, students account for less than 10% of the Park Street Market’s traffic. The statistics are similar for Ric’s in Mount Pleasant, hometown of Central Michigan University. For the latter, the student customer base has shrunk 10%, down from 35% a decade ago.
“There’s a competitive advantage in serving the underserved because a lot of corporations don’t want to go into these communities,” said Kiar Gamsho, who oversees Kalamazoo’s Park Street Market. “There would be a lot more than me if they could see the opportunity to serve this important demographic.”
Independent grocers face different challenges than larger big-box retailers, with order sizes not meeting the same quantity to meet supply and pricing advantages.
Michigan’s independent grocers are eligible to take part in the Grocers Fund, a dividend-paying group self-insurance fund organized in 2014 that reduces workers’ compensation costs. The service has been part of a Michigan Retailers Association membership since 2018, when MRA acquired the Michigan Grocers Association. Gamsho’s store takes advantage of this benefit. Non-grocer retailers are encouraged to take advantage of Retailer Insurance Company’s best-in-class workers’ compensation options.
Recruited to serve neighborhood
Park Street Market is operated by Gamsho, a second-generation grocer. His dad, Sam, has been a Michigan grocer for 40 years, and his family’s The Shina Group operates 14 urban grocery stores in the Detroit area. Those stores have built a reputation for delivering top service, cleanliness, and quality food while maintaining competitive prices.
In 2010, the family was recruited to manage a full-service grocery in a location owned by Kalamazoo’s Northside Association for Community Development after the store was vacated by Felpausch Food Center in May 2009.
“We have replicated our urban grocery model here in Kalamazoo,” said Gamsho, an accountant and a trained butcher. “Our mom-and-pop approach to running successful grocery stores defies the cookie-cutter.”
The store, at 512 N. Park St., has sponsored nutrition classes for customers. Distinctive features include a catering service and the Kalamazoo Meat Depot, a custom butcher shop patronized by local restaurants. It also has a popular soul food restaurant, Kiki’s Crab & Fry, with a menu that includes meatloaf, catfish, and pot roast.
“People love the food,” said Gamsho. “We do fresh greens, yams, and black eyed peas.”
The store received the Vanguard Award from the Metropolitan Kalamazoo Branch NAACP in 2019 for bringing quality, affordable food to Kalamazoo’s inner city and playing an important role in a culturally rich community. Most of the store’s 75-person staff is African American, reflecting the demographic of the community it serves.
Midtown Fresh is the second Kalamazoo location for Gamsho-Shina families. The store opened in 2017 after the family purchased a shuttered grocery store on Howard Street. Midtown Fresh occupies half of the 60,000 square-foot space, which has been transformed into a “lifestyle center” with a medical clinic, coffee shop, and an Ace Hardware.
The grocery store has been curated to serve its customer base, with an aisle devoted to Hispanic products and another to Middle Eastern foods.
Both Kalamazoo stores emphasize quality meats and perishables.
Grocery leader in mid-Michigan
Shane Smith began his career with Ric’s 35 years ago as a service clerk before moving into the meat department. These days, he’ll step away from his desk at the retailer’s corporate office in Mount Pleasant to help out at the store, bagging groceries, or cutting meat when it gets busy.
The store is known for its extensive craft beer selection.
“It’s one of those things that we’ve developed and just keep adding on to,” said Smith. “It’s exploded over the past 10 years.”
Ric’s also is known for its deli, which has several signature items, dips, salads and sandwiches, along with grab-and-go meals.
“We carry as much seasonal Michigan produce as we can in the summertime,” Smith said. “We’ve got a really good reputation in town, and we carry some of the best meat products, from Amish chicken to choice beef.”
Looking ahead to 2024, the grocer will increase its selection of grab-and-go meal solutions, salads, and dips. “We’re going to continue to carry quality meat products,” Smith said.
Ric’s also has locations in Ithaca, 30 minutes south of Mount Pleasant, and in Rockford, about 20 miles north of Grand Rapids. Of Ric’s 120 workers, 50 of them work at the Mount Pleasant location.
The original Ric’s opened in 1976, making it the longest-serving grocery store in the county, according to Smith, who is looking forward to celebrating the grocer’s 50th anniversary in two years.
“Mount Pleasant is the county seat of Isabella County, with nearly half of the county’s 60,000 residents. This is where most of the county comes to shop,” Smith said.
Ric’s also takes advantage of Grocers Fund, the self-insurance fund that was organized that is among the MRA resources.
Giving to community
Philanthropy is important for both grocers. During the holidays, the Mount Pleasant store partners with community organizations for the annual “Filling a Mayflower” drive, gathering donations of non-perishable food and toiletry items to fill a moving truck. Another big event is the High Five Turkey drive, where customer donations are used to purchase turkeys and other supplies that are given to food pantries and churches.
Gamsho says his company supports Kalamazoo by participating in National Night Out, Shop with a Senior, and other nonprofit efforts. The company has been honored for its work supporting its urban neighborhood.
“Kalamazoo is a unique and creative kind of place, so we’ve taken a unique and creative approach to serving the people here,” he said.