Welcoming guests to Great Giant’s open house are, from left, Chris Yelda, Delone Yelda, Avin Yelda, John Yelda (father), Nick Garmo (meat department director) and Devone Yelda. Photo by Michael Buck
Madison Square residents can thank five brothers from metro Detroit for preventing their neighborhood from becoming a food desert.
Brothers and co-owners Delone, Devone, Chris, Eldon and Avin Yelda took over the former Duthler’s Family Foods, at 1226 Madison Ave. SE in Grand Rapids, last February when it was in liquidation and turned it into a Great Giant Supermarket that offers household goods, dairy products, frozen foods, spices, produce, meat and staples, including ethnic foods.
This month, the brothers finished a seven-month renovation of the formerly dilapidated grocery store, which they were able to do in stages while keeping the store open for business. They are leasing the facility from Family D Corp, according to a spokeswoman for the Yelda brothers.
The owners held a grand re-opening celebration Jan. 10 showing off improvements — including a new floor, revamped décor, all-new refrigeration equipment and a Soul Food Town deli — to a steady flow of customers and community leaders.
Delone Yelda told the Business Journal he and his brothers were “born into” the retail grocery business, with their father working in the industry for 50 years and he and his siblings “tagging along when we were kids.”
The brothers purchased their first Great Giant Supermarket location in Flint years ago and opened another in Saginaw with the help of a group of undisclosed partners. Those partners went on to open a third location in Lansing.
The Yelda brothers sold all of their shares in the other locations to fund this transaction and the approximately $1-million renovation.
Delone Yelda said the four Great Giant Supermarkets, while sharing branding and a website, operate independently.
He said taking over the former Duthler’s property in Grand Rapids was appealing because of the neighborhood’s great need.
“There are so many households here, and there just really isn’t somewhere within a short drive or walk customers can come and get fresh groceries every day,” he said.
The only other nearby supermarket is the Meijer store on 28th Street and Kalamazoo Avenue, which is about 4 miles from Madison Avenue and Hall Street, the center of the Madison Square neighborhood. If not for Great Giant, the area would become a food desert.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a place, usually an impoverished area, where “at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent” of the population live more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store that provides fresh fruit, vegetables “and other healthful whole foods.”
Duthler’s Family Foods operated the 25,000-square-foot store that’s now Great Giant from 2008 to 2018. The Business Journal reported in 2014 the company bought the building, which it had been leasing, and planned a $2.5-million renovation.
In 2016 and 2017, Duthler’s closed its stores on Four Mile Road NW and Bridge Street NW, citing financial problems and rising rents. It also quietly closed its store at Rogers Plaza shopping center in Wyoming sometime around 2015, after which Ken’s Fruit Market bought the place and operated there from March 2016 until its closure in July 2018.
Whether Duthler’s completed the Madison store renovation is unclear, and the company no longer has a website or listed phone number. Delone Yelda said when he and his brothers took over, the building was in a state of disrepair.
“We took a look at the store, and it was really in rough shape and needed a lot of updating,” he said. “Products weren’t fresh, and prices were too high. When we studied the area, we realized that this can be a great asset for the neighborhood (after it’s renovated).”
And so the Yelda brothers — all five of them — moved to Grand Rapids and kicked off renovations two months after signing the lease.
“All of our contractors were from the neighborhood,” Delone Yelda said. “They were all local customers of ours. We’d see a guy walk in as a customer with paint on his pants from a job site and ask him if he’d like a job working here. Everybody was local, and we didn’t use just one contractor.”
The store has 60 employees — many of whom were retained from Duthler’s — and is currently hiring.
Delone Yelda said business has increased every month since Great Giant opened, as customers give the location “a second chance.”
“Customers are very happy and pleased that the prices have become better and the store overall is more presentable and sanitary and clean,” he said.
The biggest changes the brothers made are the fresh produce section; full-service butcher providing ethnic-focused meats such as rooster, capon, frog legs, pig feet and tails, pork jowls and neck bones, chicken gizzards, carne de taco, beef liver, fajita mix and Chamorro; and the deli.
“We do a whole line of soul foods every day,” Delone Yelda said.
Examples include dinners of wings, tenders, spare ribs, meatloaf, catfish and oxtail; sides of cornbread, green beans, mashed potatoes and fries; and extras such as “soul bowls,” cheesecake and peach cobbler.
Another hallmark of the new Great Giant location, Delone Yelda said, is the co-owners’ daily presence.
“We kind of separate ourselves from those chain stores by making ourselves available to our customers,” he said. “We’re always on the floor, and we’re always here. We’re always willing to help with any needs, even if it means giving them my phone number and taking their phone number if they need something ordered special.”
Kent County Commissioner Monica Sparks attended the grand re-opening and was seen putting up signs in the frozen foods case to let customers know of special deals.
“I just think this is a wonderful thing for the neighborhood, and I’m here to support it in any way I can,” she said.
LINC UP is a community development nonprofit across the street from Great Giant. Executive Director Jeremy DeRoo echoed Sparks’ sentiments.
“The owners have demonstrated a willingness to listen to the community and have made a huge investment in the community,” he said. “They’re here to please the customers, and it’s great to have a business like that in the area.”
He said he believes it could spur further economic development since the store’s array of specialty products could drive traffic from neighborhoods that lack such offerings.
“Suddenly, the business district becomes a destination for other people and adds traffic and other business,” he said. “A grocery is an anchor institution. Likewise, the loss of the grocery store would be a huge loss and would have not made possible other efforts in the area.”
Great Giant Supermarket is located by a bus station and shares a large parking lot with Dollar General and OJ Beauty Enterprises.
The store is open 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday.