By Darlene C. Carey
Less than a week away and after several delays, Hamady Complete Food Centers is finally opening its doors July 25. The resurrected company has invited the public to preview the renovated grocery store July 24 from 6 to 9 p.m. and witness the opening ribbon cutting ceremony at 11 a.m. July 25 at the Hallwood Plaza, 2629 W. Pierson Rd.
Could this be an oasis in the food desert that has plagued Flint’s North End?
Flint has had its share of hardship with healthy food access after the closure of five of its last six large chain grocery stores within the last decade, making it difficult for residents to get food, especially those with little access to transportation. The water crisis has added to the urgency, with experts advising residents that certain fresh foods stem damage from lead toxicity. According to the website citylab.com, an urban food desert, as defined by the USDA, is predominantly low-income and situated more than one mile away from the nearest grocery store.
Food activist Erin Caudell, co-owner of The Local Grocer on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Carriage Town and in the Farmers’ Market, prefers the term “food apartheid” for what has happened in the city–what she defines as “the systemic production and distribution of nutrient-poor, disease-causing foods to economically-vulnerable areas that disproportionately harms communities of color.” In a May interview with EVM, she said “Food apartheid is rooted in injustices such as colonialism, slavery, land loss, and environmental racism.”
The resurrected Hamady is just one piece of the food access blueprint of Flint, adding to ongoing development initiatives. Along with the diversity of grassroots organizations such as the North Flint Food Market cooperative just down the street and Caudell’s The Local Grocer, Hamady could help alleviate some of the area’s food access issues.
Asked why he put the store in the North End, owner Jim McColgan, Jr. proudly said, “My dad, my brother, my family…we started our roots here” and added he would not “pander” to the perception of it being a high crime area. “I refuse to lock those doors, I refuse to close those doors…I want to be part of the transition and growth of this community,” he said.
Hamady’s has a long and legendary history in the Flint community. According to Supermarket news, Hamady Brothers was founded in 1911, by Lebanese immigrant cousins who were like brothers, Michael and Kamol Hamady. In their heyday, the Hamady Brothers operated 37 stores in the Flint area.
The company, with its recognizable, iconic brown bag the “Hamady sack,” was known early on for sending truckloads of food to strikers at the famous 1936-37 Sit-down Strike at General Motors’ Fisher Body plant–the strike which gave rise to the United Auto Workers union.
The chain grew through purchasing 21 closed Kroger stores, along with smaller independents Hutch’s, Vescio’s and Chatham. However, Hamady Brothers eventually went bankrupt, and in 1989 was sold to McColgan Investment. The chain closed the last of its stores in 1991, the last 13 sold to Kessel Food Markets.
Will history repeat itself? The owner believes that is not the case. “We the community… We the people of this community are going to be blessed,” McColgan declared at a May 22 press conference. This statement came as the Flint community waited on the opening.
Since the start of the project 17 months before, the rebirth of Flint’s historic food center had experienced its share of delays. A stop work notice March 29 because of permit issues, along with internal problems, which McColgan described as a “bad business partner” cost him three or four months. Still, he reflected with optimism, “It’s been fun; a roller coaster ride, and we’re getting close to the last hill.”
McColgan exuberantly predicts the new store would be “the finest grocery store in Genesee County.” It will showcase vendors he says will compare with Meijer and Kroger: SuperValu, Great North from Alpena, several Detroit wholesale companies and local suppliers. A 5,000-square-foot section will be devoted to Michigan-made products.
But Flint residents wondered if it was ever going to happen. The North End community, facing the uphill with access to healthy food, still wanted answers to the causes of the delays. McColgan insisted there were two major factors for the wait. An issue with a “funding program with our suppliers” which he hoped would “finalize with Symetra (a Japanese owned company near Seattle, Washington).” He then stated that “it takes 21 days to tag and stock the store.”
The next issue was obtaining “the certificate of occupancy” from the City of Flint. Besides the two main issues, he also added he had to get with SuperValu (a supplier they chose over Spartan) to work out the WIC program because that takes three weeks to be approved. McColgan said getting the WIC program was a serious concern, because he projects that “about 40 percent of sales will be WIC, so it is important to have.” According to DataUSA, 40 percent of Flint residents live below the poverty line and have a median household income of less than $25,000.
In May, McColgan said the store was “98% ready to be open,” saying he and his store team had been working hard to address safety concerns with the Flint City Building Department.
He praised and credited Flint Mayor, Karen Weaver, and Second Ward City Councilman Maurice Davis, in “diligently assisting us” and “in finding things I didn’t think were anything big–but bottom line it’s big and I’m inspired.” One example was doors that swung the wrong way and didn’t meet current fire safety code though they’d been like that for 25 years.
“There’s no magic to it– it’s hands,” McColgan said. He was talking about the time needed to lay down 5,000 tiles to make the floor safe for his customers to walk on in the 74,000-square-foot space. “I’m signing a 10-year lease with a 10-year option…that’s 20 years, and the City doesn’t want to see us fail in 3 years.” At the May press conference, McColgan promised a June 20 opening and stated the store should be open in “five or no more than six weeks.” However he suggested he’d take all the time needed. “Why should I open and have your first experience not be a ‘wow’?”
Some doubted whether the store would be a “recognized voice in the community” to which McColgan responded, “there’s a digital sign on the road that says help wanted… help wanted…you hear me, help wanted!” Despite having run consecutive ads in the Flint Journal, The View and also listing online with Michigan Works, the store struggled to hire employees. By May, he’d hired 15 employees.
Starting pay will be $12 to $14 an hour, depending on an employee’s qualifications. “We’ll pay more for team leaders so we’ll have a better store” he said. He added the company is putting together 401-K packages for full-time employees.
In May, McColgan said he still needed “a meat manager, produce managers, and store managers…we need more people.” Asked if he had enough workers to open, he retorted with some humor, “Of course we do…my dad always told me don’t let anyone put you in a bind, you put yourself in a bind, so if I have to cut meat or produce, I’ll do it, but you better stay away from me.”
In January, according to the GST Michigan Works, the company was awarded $51,000 by Michigan Works for skilled trades training and employee retention. Training started in May, on location, provided by outside companies.
McColgan said he didn’t want to reveal too much about hoped-for events to be offered at the store, but said store officials have been working with the Ruth Mott Foundation to provide a continuous supply of books for reading sessions for kids, and “no offense, for adults too.”
He said he and his hiring team went to more than eight area churches and spoke with about 2,000 people to get the word out about the need for workers. Asked about minimum or maximum ages for employees, McColgan replied, “I will be the guy to refill your oxygen tank,” and nostalgically added, “I wish I could hire some of our original workers.”
McColgan said he has a “succession plan” for expansion but he would like to see operations do well in this community first. He said his organization is looking at former Hamady store locations or close to them, such as “K-mart’s old store #9 on Miller Road” as possibilities for expansion, as well as in the Clio, Durand and Holly areas.
McColgan complimented Mayor Weaver and the City of Flint because “they let a beautiful organization develop, thrive and service this community.”
“We are not going to let anyone stop us,” he continued, “We are going to work through anything and everything that comes our way with honesty, morals, ethics and professional business…and hard work.”
Time will tell if the reborn Hamady’s is an oasis in Flint’s food desert or a mirage.
EVM staff writer Darlene Carey can be reached at email@example.com.