While National Franchises Leave North, Locals Stay
The building that once housed the Aldi store in North Minneapolis. Winter Keefer

While National Franchises Leave North, Locals Stay

With the departure of Aldi and the impending closure of Walgreens in North Minneapolis, local institutions are scrambling to help their neighbors meet basic needs.

Growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s, LaTasha Powell remembers walking with her family to one of five neighborhood grocery stores in North Minneapolis.

“We didn’t need transportation to travel outside of our community because everything was here, but I started to see all that disappear and, back then, I didn’t know why,” said Powell, a lifelong North Minneapolis resident and president and co-founder of local nonprofit Appetite for Change.

As Powell grew into her teenage years, stores started to close. Eventually, the neighborhood was down to a single full-service grocery store. Now, more than three decades later, only two grocery stores serve North Minneapolis neighborhoods, which are home to around 70,000 residents.

With only a week’s notice, Aldi closed Sunday, Feb.12. The West Broadway and North Lyndale Walgreens closed today, Feb. 22.

One week after the North Minneapolis Aldi announced its sudden departure, Powell spoke about her childhood over coffee. Walgreens on Broadway had also just announced it would close too, leaving Cub Foods the sole pharmacy in the area.

LaTasha Powell, co-founder and president of Appetite For Change
LaTasha Powell, co-founder and president of Appetite For Change

Sitting in the bright dining area of Appetite for Change’s Breaking Bread Cafe – one of many food-related resources Appetite for Change provides to the community – Powell said these sudden disinvestments in the community by corporations are devastating. “I’m just tired,” she said, noting this has happened before and will happen again if something doesn’t change.

It’s worth noting that Aldi certainly isn’t the first company to pull out of the area; many businesses have done the same in the past, including Kowalski’s and Target.

But Powell will stay because she cares about her neighborhood and the people who live in it. That care for the community is what fosters longevity. The sudden onset of disinvestment is an example of what happens when access to basic needs like access to food is dictated by corporations headquartered far from the communities they serve.

Powell thinks about how her mother loved to walk to the store. She’s done it all her life. Aldi was a community hub where people like Powell’s mother could see their friends and family members in passing.

“They took that from her. I’m hurt. I’m a little upset. I do understand business, but it doesn’t make that okay,” Powell said.

How we got here 

It’s no secret that North Minneapolis, a collection of neighborhoods with the state’s largest Black population, has been systematically and historically disenfranchised.

In the early 1900s, restrictive covenants were written into real estate deeds, which limited where Black residents could live in the city. In the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration created redlining, which used these restrictive covenants to prevent people of color from purchasing homes in predominantly white neighborhoods. So the area became a haven for many marginalized communities in the 1900s, MinnPost outlined in a history of the Minneapolis Near North area. Many local businesses were built and thrived. That is until public infrastructure cut them off and snuffed them out.

In the late 1960s, the Olson Memorial Highway expanded, cutting into Near North. Interstate 94 was built in the 1970s, further cutting off the North from downtown. Historically, it’s well documented that when businesses leave a community, people leave with them. This is what happened in North Minneapolis in the 1980s.

Decades later, Aldi and Walgreens leaving is just another blow. Both companies sent TCB the same canned statements about their departures that was sent to every other local news outlet. A spokesperson for Aldi said the sudden shuttering of the store was due to the “inability to renovate the store to accommodate our larger product range and our current lease term expiring.” The statement points residents to the Aldi store at 5620 Broadway Avenue, or one of five other Aldi stores within a 15-minute drive.

Walgreen’s statement was even more vague. It said factors leading to the closure included its “existing footprint of stores and dynamics of the local market, and changes in the buying habits of our patients and customers.”

DeVon Nolen, market and outreach manager for the West Broadway Farmers Market, was among those in the Breaking Bread Cafe the day I met with Powell. The lifelong North Minneapolis resident and longtime food justice activist said Powell was one of the first people she called when she heard the news about Aldi. It took them both by surprise, but they knew they would be fielding calls from people asking what happened.

“This felt very cannibalistic. I realized that I have the privilege of having a vehicle I can drive to another Aldi, but a lot of my community members cannot,” Nolen said. She said it was another example of “North Minneapolis being a disenfranchised community – that we don’t count, our lives don’t matter.”

“Our tax dollars are the same amount as people’s tax dollars in southwest Minneapolis,” Nolen said. “And then I also got really scared and mad because I started thinking about what happens when people are hungry.”

North already faces issues of hunger, Nolen said, noting hunger breeds desperation as people try to meet their basic needs.

“I really am interested in having businesses who value their customers, not just as this transaction, right? But there’s a person behind that transaction. There’s a family behind this transaction. There’s a need that’s being met behind that transaction. It should be more relational than transactional. Those are the types of businesses we would like to see here,” she said.

A new model of funding 

North Market on North 44th Ave. in the Camden neighborhood is now one of only three grocery providers in North Minneapolis. It’s in a former Kowalski’s building, which left a decade ago after 30 years of business.

Outside of Cub Foods, independent grocers Northside Market and So Low Grocery Outlet are all that remain.

Operated by nonprofit Pillsbury United Communities, the North Market is only able to operate because of community funders and support. The market opened in 2017 after Pillsbury United raised $6 million in funding, $2 million of which was from the state.

Before building North Market, Pillsbury United conducted a market analysis study that identified the people living in the area have money they are willing to spend in their own community, said Vanan Murugesan, chief transformation officer with Pillsbury United Communities.

“There’s this false narrative that there’s not enough money in the community,” Murugensan said. The trick is having businesses in the community where people can spend money.

At the time North Market opened, North was one of the largest food deserts in the country, Murugensan said. A food desert is defined as an area with limited access to affordable and healthy food.

“Unfortunately with Aldi’s departure, I think we’re going back to that situation,” he said. Later, he noted that some people don’t like using the term “food desert” because “they feel like the desert is like a natural occurrence, but what is happening is actually a systemic under-investment. Human beings made this decision, so it’s not a natural occurrence. Some people will argue it’s a food apartheid because it’s a system that is unjust and unfair.”

North Market is not as accessibly located as Aldi was. Because it is an independent store, it’s hard to compete with larger chain pricing. Wednesdays are a popular day at North Market because produce is half off, but Murugensan notes this is only possible because of donations and external funding. 

And this model of support needs to continue in North, he noted. For a community to thrive, it needs basic amenities, and this includes food. It’s hard to think of a solution to this problem that doesn’t involve an overhaul of the system, Murugensan said. To him, to ensure a better society for everyone, there is a need for further public-private partnership when it comes to grocery stores.

“If we feel as a public it is important like access to food, then we cannot use it for profit,” he said.

Franchises can come and go freely, but people can’t

Powell also spoke of the importance of nonprofits and cooperative models. So did Anissa Keyes, founder of Arubah Emotional Health Services and creator of the Northside Epicenter where small businesses can have a brick-and-mortar office at a low cost in the Camden Park State Bank building right off I-94.

Keyes is also frustrated by the recent disinvestments in North.

“It shows how important it is for us to own our community, for us to be able to have leverage and power in our community,” she said.

North is not the easiest place to own a business, she notes. It comes with challenges around security and safety.

“But businesses that are from the community, that are in the community, that are of the community, they’re just going to be a lot more invested,” she said. “They’re going to be able to sustain those challenges understanding that the benefit of their placement is way more important and instrumental than some of the challenges they are being met with,” she said.

Keyes pointed to the city’s Commercial Property Development Fund, which works to help people of color and marginalized communities purchase commercial property in their neighborhoods. This is a good step, she said. But more resources are still needed.

Over the last few weeks, Keyes has found herself at the state Capitol multiple times advocating for community black-owned businesses.

“These are the businesses that are not going to just leave whenever it gets rough, right? They’re invested in the community. That’s where the supports need to go. That’s where the focus needs to be,” she said.

Keyes pointed to models like North Market. It will take creativity, but local power is key she said.

“Local ownership means we get to direct what gets placed on the shelves, all the way from what companies stay or go,” she said. “Until we have that, we’re kind of at the whim of everybody else.”