In 2011, two Michigan State University professors used a mapping program to examine Metro Lansing pedestrian access to fresh produce. Aside from two dozen tiny splotches concentrated in the region’s densest suburban areas, the entire map — running from Delta Township in the west to Williamston in the east and from Holt in the south to DeWitt in the north — was a sea of “little to no access,” more or less confirming the capital city’s designation as a “food desert.” One of the study’s conclusions was that less than 4 percent of the population lives within a 10-minute walk of a supermarket.
“I knew there was no access to fresh produce in this area, and I knew it was badly needed,” said Doug Salazar, co-owner of Sunripe Produce, a new fresh produce market on Lansing’s north side. “The way I see it, we’re filling a community need.”
Sunripe Produce opened Nov. 7 at 3322 N. East St. after months of renovation work to a building formerly home to a motorcycle shop. It’s situated between the Creston and Northtown neighborhoods. The closest grocery store, the Meijer on Lake Lansing Road, is a little over three miles away. Downtown’s Lansing City Market is closer, but produce sellers have slowly left the building over the last five years.
“We haven’t been open that long, but we’re already getting a lot of people who are finding us, telling us they’re so glad we’re here,” Salazar said. “A lot of it is (foot traffic), but there’s also a lot of people who drive here who tell us they’ll support us because we’re a family business. It’s good to know we’re creating that kind of connection.”
Sunripe’s staff consists of Salazar’s mother, his three sisters and his father, a longtime local wholesale vendor who worked for over 10 years at Van Houten Produce in south Lansing. Salazar said he and his father had often talked about opening their own store, with talk turning to action about six months ago.
“We just decided that if we kept talking about it, we’d never do it,” Salazar said. “So we put all our hands in the pot, and here we are.”
Sunripe’s inventory includes traditional produce — lettuce, cucumbers, onions, oranges and bananas — as well as slightly more exotic goods like yuccas and plantains. So far, the market’s sales floor takes up only about a third of the building’s 2,900-square-foot footprint. But Salazar has maximized his space to accommodate a number of fruits and vegetables, with a focus on Michigan-made goods like beans, apples, carrots and potatoes. But many items, mostly warm weather crops, still need to be imported. The inventory is purchased at Detroit’s Eastern Market each Thursday, hand-picked by Salazar himself.
“I like that I can pick and chose what to sell and knowing where it comes from,” he said. “If something doesn’t look fresh, I just won’t buy it, so sometimes we’ll just be out of that item for the week. I only buy the best. It took a little while to understand some of the produce terms, but I’ve always liked the challenge of trying new things.”
Before opening Sunripe, Salazar worked as a customer logistics manager for Ryder Integrated Logistics, a supplier for General Motors. Before that he spent eight years at Chuck E. Cheese on Lansing’s west side, working his way up to a management position.
“I’ve never had a job where I haven’t moved up within six months,” Salazar said. “I’ve just always been driven to succeed. I always knew I would end up owning my own business someday. I’m just glad I got to do it here. I went to elementary school around the corner, and I went to middle school right up the road. I really like this area, and I don’t see us leaving.”
Salazar said he’s been getting customer requests for grocery items such as canned goods, milk, eggs and meat, but for now the store will focus on produce. His goals are to eventually buy the building he’s currently leasing, knock down some walls and expand the business. He’s also interested in opening another location on the city’s south side, another notorious food desert.
“Business has been picking up the more people find out we’re here,” Salazar said. “And we recently started accepting EBT, which really helped us. I try to make sure that our prices are cheaper or at least the same price as Kroger and Meijer, and we’ve gotten a lot of compliments on that. It makes me happy to know that I’m part of the solution to a very complicated problem. There are a lot of struggling families who don’t have much money in this area. If I can help them out, then I’ve done my job.”
Saddleback to the future
Okemos may be getting in on the Metro Lansing barbecue boom. On Monday, the Meridian Township planning commission approved a special use permit for Saddleback BBQ to install a smoker at a proposed second location in Central Park Plaza, a mixed-use retail center at 1754 Central Park Drive near Meridian Mall. The building is also home to Cancun Mexican Grill and Thai Princess.
“Nothing’s in stone just yet,” said coowner Matt Gillett. “We’re just in the planning stages for now. There are still a few things that need to go our way, but we think we’d be a good fit for Okemos.”
Saddleback opened in May 2015 at 1147 S. Washington Ave. in the heart of REO Town. Since then, Sleepwalker Spirits & Ale, Blue Owl Coffee Co., a new restaurant called Rusty Nail and a food truck court in the parking lot of Riverview Church have all announced plans to join the historic retail district. Gillett said the bustle prompted him to look elsewhere for expansion plans before deciding to make any changes to the current store.
“There’s so much going on here right now, we’re just waiting for things to settle,” Gillett said. “REO Town has grown like 400 percent within the last year. It’s unbelievable.”
3322 N. East St., Lansing
9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
(517) 657-3892, facebook.com/sunripeproduce