August 13, 2008
Section: Business
Edition: 1-dot
Page: 2C

Green grocer outgrows plot, looks for new spot
Maureen McDonald / Special to The Detroit News

Green grocer outgrows plot, looks for new spot
Natural Food Patch gains customers daily and the owner hopes to move to a larger location.

By Maureen McDonaldSpecial to The Detroit News

FERNDALE — Retailing fresh veggies, organic cereals and green teas have proved healthy for Joel Fisher's business, Natural Food Patch. He outgrew his 5,200 square foot store in downtown Ferndale and needs a larger space to cultivate more customers.

"We have a wonderful, mixed clientele who come for good prices, real customer service. We couldn't get this demographic anywhere but Ferndale," Fisher said as he begins his 10th year in business.

Any time he introduces a new product to his 30,000 stock items, he has to cancel another, otherwise the shopping carts won't fit in the aisles. He adds 15 to 20 new customers a day.

Expansion proves difficult. This spring he feasted his life-long vegetarian eyes on the defunct Maria's Back Room next door. He could knock out a wall and sell fresh produce and lots of gluten free pasta. But the landlord rented the space to another restaurant owner that needed kitchen and ventilation equipment. A fine furniture store bid higher for a large space on the other side in fall 2006.

"I pay my bills. I have an excellent credit rating," Fisher said. Like many merchants today beset with higher wholesale prices, he can't pay more rent and offer the same value.

Several years ago he made bids for the defunct F & M space, once occupied by his aunt and uncle, Fred and Martha Cohen, founders of the regional discount chain. But he lost out to Affirmations, a community center, and Buffalo Wild Wings, a sports bar. He'd trade his last eggplant for a chance at leasing the 15,000 square foot Old Navy space at the bustling corner of Nine Mile and Woodward, but the price is daunting.

"The spot is smack dab on a corner, a very visible piece of real estate," said Carl Grenadier, owner of the Southfield-based Grenadier Ferndale LLC in Southfield. He wants $18 to $20 a square foot. He said he talked to several national and local businesses interested in the space, but still no takers.

If Fisher was interested in a spot in the sprawling suburbs, he could find numerous properties opened by the closing of national retailer Linens and Things, according to Paul Bensman, owner of the consulting firm, Details in Retail.

The Natural Food Patch draws almost 40 percent of its business from Detroit. A large percentage of people from north and south come from the Woodward bus line. He also has a loyal following within Ferndale.

Time may work in Fisher's favor, Bensman said.

"With taxes, insurance and maintenance, the landlord of a larger property might decide to make a deal. We're seeing some leasing agents taking some rent, subsidizing the remainder. It depends on how long the property sits empty," he said. "Landlords cut deals when they can't afford not to do so."

Robert Bruner, city manager, laments the availability of several boutique size storefronts and giant size factories. Few properties fall between, especially at an affordable $8 to $12 a square foot.

"When I started Natural Food Patch I couldn't fill the store. It seemed huge. People believed in the concept. I put every dime back in inventory. They like to talk to clerks about vitamins, share recipes, something lacking in the chain stores," Fisher said.

Natural Food Patch

•Specialty: With the help of 30 employees, Joel Fisher sells an assortment of organic and healthful products including 500 varieties of tea. He enjoys being close to the Nine Mile and Woodward bus lines and having ample city parking nearby.

•Contact: Visit or call (248) 546-5908

Maureen McDonald is a Metro Detroit freelance writer