July 16, 2008

Grocer Joins Food Fight: Fresh Market Offers ‘Alternative’ Experience

By Sadia Latifi, The Chapel Hill News, N.C.

Jul. 16--CHAPEL HILL -- The employees of the new Fresh Market store opening Wednesday in Chapel Hill were in crunch time this week.

Most of the 90 new hires rushed around the store Monday morning, stocking 200 types of cheeses, learning to bake 15 different kinds of pies, and doing their best to stack pyramids of organic apples without spilling any.

The Greensboro-based chain's 13th North Carolina store is opening at 1200 Raleigh Road in the Glenwood Square Shopping Center across from Glen Lennox on N.C. 54. In an area saturated with specialty food stores like Weaver Street Market and Whole Foods, The Fresh Market thinks there's room for everybody.

"Chapel Hill seems like a town with a lot of foodies who enjoy cooking and entertaining," spokeswoman Drewry Sackett said. "There are a number of options in this area, but there are things they don't have that we have and the other way around."

Aaron Nelson, president of Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, said the new store would be welcome in the robust market.

"You can buy six kinds of arugula here," he said.

"We have more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the United States, six farmers markets in the county. We're becoming a destination for foodies," Nelson said. "That adds to our quality of life and our appeal."

The store is 24,600 square feet, one of the largest of Fresh Market's 80 stores. The upscale market will feature 30 freshly baked breads, a coffee bar, fresh seafood imported multiple times per week, and prepared to-go lunches on the premises.

Sackett said the store's dim lights, classical music, on-site wine and cheese experts, and complimentary coffee will give shoppers an alternative experience.

"We want to be where people appreciate good food and excellent customer service," she said. "We think we offer something different."

Shopping in The Fresh Market's Cary store for a family dinner Saturday, Kay Reynolds, 32, said she enjoys the store's ambiance and personal attention.

"There's definitely a wide selection here," she said. "But, to be honest, I go here over the other markets because it's just closer to my house. They're all pretty good, though."

Earth Fare closed its Eastgate location after just a year and a half last January, citing low sales in an oversaturated market. A Trader Joe's later moved into its spot, which is just a street down from A Southern Season and Whole Foods. Weaver Street Market opened its third store in Hillsborough last month.

"There's a trend toward natural and organic foods and I think people are more aware of the benefits of those kinds of foods, so grocery stores are going that way," said Ruffin Slater, general manager of Weaver Street, a food co-op. "People are very interested in buying local food and investing in a food system where they have that kind of food security."

The specialty food industry comprises more than 20,000 stores with a combined annual revenue of $20 billion, according to Hoover's, an industry tracker. Whole Foods announced a 13 percent drop in profit margins in May, which some analysts say could mean the start of trouble for upscale natural food stores.

Slater said he believes that when it comes to food, people will make choices that fit their budget, but that in this area, a premium is placed on quality.

"We do just happen to have a lot of local producers in this area who produce really good food, and people see that as a viable alternative to just going to Food Lion and buying the same package of food," he said.


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