Chaldeans dominate grocery landscape

By Dale Buss
Special to The Detroit News
John Denha and Jimmy Kas-Mikha own Family Foods in Detroit. “It was the land of opportunity,” Denha says. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)
Ownership of Detroit’s grocery trade has long been held by a patchwork of ethnic and immigrant groups, but today it’s mostly a Chaldean-owned business.

Of the 83 full-line grocery stores in Detroit, Chaldean businesspeople own as many as 75, according to statistics compiled by the Associated Food & Petroleum Dealers, a West Bloomfield Township-based trade group.

The remainder are owned by Hispanic, Jewish and African-American families, as well as Aldi and Kmart, according to the group.

“In the history of our organization, we were once dominated by Jewish members, then Italians and now Chaldeans,” AFPD President Auday Arabo said.

Chaldean grocers, including the Denha family, began to dominate the business not only in Detroit, but also in some of its nearby suburbs as they bought up locations abandoned by chains in the wake of the 1967 riots, Arabo said.

“Our people (in Iraq) knew there were jobs and money to be made here, and it was the land of opportunity,” said John Denha, co-owner of Family Foods in Detroit, “so they took advantage of the chance to build something for themselves, their families and their community.

“Back home, they were merchants, selling rice and grain, some lamb and sugar, from booths to people in their neighborhoods. It’s what they knew.”

Denha’s father emigrated from Iraq in the mid-1950s and got established in a cousin’s grocery near Second Street and Euclid in Detroit. He then opened his own store on 12th Street (now Rosa Parks Boulevard) in the mid-1960s.

After the riots, the Denhas opened a handful of stores, including shops at Seven Mile and Livernois roads, at Woodward and Euclid, and at Gratiot and Mt. Elliott near the Faygo plant.

In addition to a store at a new location on Rosa Parks Boulevard, the 42-year-old Denha and his two brothers run stores under the Foodland name, and others in Southfield, Waterford Township and Harper Woods.

Sixty to 70 years ago, Jewish merchants owned the biggest share of the grocery trade in Detroit, said Arabo, whose organization represents independent grocers, and convenience-store and gas-station owners across Michigan and Ohio.

By the 1950s, Italian merchants were the biggest players, and Chaldean entrepreneurs gradually took over from them, he said.

The Hiller family opened its first store in Detroit in 1941, called Shopping Center Market, near Michigan Avenue and Central in what then was a Polish neighborhood.

“It was bustling, filled with all sorts of immigrants at that time,” said Jim Hiller, who now is CEO of Southfield-based Hiller’s markets.

Other Jewish entrepreneurial families who owned grocery stores at that time, Hiller said, included the Wolfs, Weissbergs (who owned Chatham stores), Bormans (whose Food Fair store later became the now-departed Farmer Jack) and Finks (founder of the now-defunct Great Scott stores).

The Hillers’ holdings expanded at mid-century to three other stores in nearby suburbs, and now the family-owned chain has seven stores in the western suburbs of Detroit.

The makeup of the grocery trade in Detroit proper, especially, is vastly different after the exodus by corporate supermarket chains. There is even a difference between who owns gas stations in the city and who owns grocery stores.

While Chaldeans, who are Catholic by background, have the most Detroit supermarkets, Muslims mostly own the city’s gas stations, Arabo said. It is largely a reflection of the fact that most smaller stores don’t sell liquor, which is consistent with the commercial tenets of many Muslims, he said.

The grocery stores in Detroit are owned by “tight-knit communities who build on inter-generational wealth,” Arabo said. “It’s by people who start with small stores. They lend to each other because usually the banks won’t. And it grows from that.”

From The Detroit News: