Mom-and-pop stores and
chain grocers vie for your green
ILLUSTRATION BY SAUL ROSENBAUM
I’m in a cavernous Walmart in South Jersey looking for organic food products and it’s not going well. The produce aisle is stocked half-heartedly with conventional fruits and veggies that look like they took a long ride in from the farm. The dairy case doesn’t offer cage-free, organically raised eggs. And the closest I can find to a healthy foods section is a shelf lined with gluten-free cookies and muffins. Not exactly the Whole Foods on a budget I thought I might find.
If Walmart has yet to jump fully on the fresh, local and organic bandwagon (in spite of its greenwashed marketing), seemingly every other grocer has. It’s never been a better time to shop for organic and sustainable products in our region, given the abundance of only-in- Philly options like the Reading Terminal Market, the Italian Market, neighborhood co-ops, farmers’ markets and CSA programs, as well as the larger players like Wegmans, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Amazon.com and their more traditional supermarket rivals.
And there are even more grocery options in our near future. Everything Fresh, a prototype market from grocery conglomerate Ahold USA, opened last winter in the 1200 block of Walnut Street. MOM’s Organic Market, part of the mixed-use Market East project, hopes to open its doors at 11th and Market early next year. And Whole Foods will soon open a new 55,000-square-foot location that’s now under construction near the Art Museum.
The growth in Philadelphia ties in with trends nationwide, according to Liz Webber, fresh market editor for Supermarket News magazine. “Consumers are looking for more information about their food and are looking for healthier foods,” Webber says. “Consumers perceive foods with words like “fresh,” “organic” and “natural” as being healthier, even if it’s not necessarily the case.”
Everything Fresh exemplifies how chain grocers are adapting their business models to meet this demand. The 3,000-square-foot “learning lab” stocks a mix of fresh produce, prepared salads and sandwiches, and grocery items, with an entire “free from” category that includes foods that are gluten-free and GMO-free, according to spokesperson Suzi Robinson.
“We’re all about healthy food, kick-butt prices and awesome teammates,” Robinson says. It remains to be seen how the grass-roots movement will fare against these giants—and their corporate-speak. Or is it like comparing apples and (organic) oranges? I browsed around some markets to find out.
WHAT’S BEST FOR FARMERS?
Every other Thursday from spring through late fall, I stop by Greensgrow Farms’ main location on a former brownfield in Kensington to pick up my CSA box. I love being part of Greensgrow because of its nonprofit model of bringing to the table fresh produce from its own greenhouses and farmers in a 50-mile or so radius, through its CSA program, farm stand and mobile markets.
But, for the most part, the products don’t come cheap. That’s because, at Greensgrow, the farmer is always right, according to founder and chief idea officer Mary Seton Corboy. “The farmer knows what he or she needs to earn,” Corboy says, “and doesn’t necessarily benefit in the same way when people buy their products at chain markets that are ‘greening themselves.’ ” According to Corboy, buying local produce from a big retailer can sometimes be like “taking commercial agriculture and putting an organic apron on it.”
Greensgrow sets itself apart from for-profit businesses by building a direct relationship between farmer and consumer. It also allows the farmers to respond to their customers in simple ways, like by making sure they get exactly what they want. Take a favorite item like summer tomatoes—Greensgrow can source the varieties that are most popular with its customers, down to requesting farmers grow tomatoes with thinner skins, Corboy says.
To Corboy, there’s no way to really compare a commercial enterprise with Greensgrow, a point that can be hard to convey to price-conscious shoppers who must wring the most from their budgets. “In some cases, our prices will be lower, but in many cases, they will be more expensive,” she says. But the superior flavor of freshly harvested produce, and the fact that it is grown in an ethically and environmentally sound way, make Greensgrow’s product very different from supermarket staples that may look, on the surface at least, identical.
Greensgrow has built a sizable business as a nursery, selling perennials, annuals, trees and shrubs, as well as vegetable starts, as part of its multi-pronged effort to get the customers in the gate, but Corboy acknowledges its model isn’t for everyone. “There are some products people buy, like a really good ear of corn that’s totally fresh, and there’s a difference in taste, but is [the difference] big enough for someone to pay more money for it?”
charm, live music,
cooking demos and
provide a sense of
place that a chain
retailer just can’t
THE LONGTIME SOURCE
Every time I shop at the Reading Terminal, I tell myself it’s something I should do more often. As one of the nation’s oldest public markets, the Reading Terminal tries to offer something for hungry tourists and conventioneers looking for an authentic Philly experience as well as local shoppers and office workers picking up ingredients for dinner. Longtime favorites like Iovine Brothers Produce and John Yi Fish Market are plying their wares alongside newcomers like La Divisa Meats and Valley Shepherd Creamery & Meltkraft Grilled Cheese. Among the 80 vendors, stalls hawk organic products next to spots where the provenance is not even a consideration. Some merchants’ prices beat that of supermarkets, while others charge a hefty premium––last summer, I spotted a tomato that cost $4.99 a pound at an Amish-owned stand.
But the terminal is not nearly as convenient to my home in Bella Vista as the Italian Market, which is probably why I don’t shop there as often as I would like. And neither RTM nor the Italian Market have hours that are conducive to last-minute weekday dinner decisions. If I want sustainably raised salmon at 6pm on a Tuesday, it’s Whole Foods or nothing.
Under new general manager Anuj Gupta, Reading Terminal is focused on maintaining the right mix between fresh food purveyors, prepared food vendors and retail outlets, while boosting the convenience factor. “There are a lot of public markets that have become food courts,” Gupta says. “It’s amazing, given our size and location, that we have maintained the viability of the market as a [grocery] shopping destination.”
With a 16,000-square-foot MOM’s Organic Market slated to open early next year a block away and a super-sized Whole Foods under construction near the Art Museum, Reading Terminal is looking to expand hours to cater to after-work shoppers and get more mileage of out of Instacart, an online home delivery service for groceries, to improve its reach. “Some merchants are using Instacart, some are not. Some have had very good success with it, some have not. But I think the growth potential is significant. We see it as a way to ensure fresh food purveyors continue to be seen as viable shopping options, even if people can’t get to the market during the week,” says Gupta.
For those who can get there, the terminal’s period charm, live music, cooking demos and other events provide a sense of place that a chain retailer can’t replicate. Gupta hopes to boost that presence this fall by closing the 1100 block of Filbert Street to traffic on Saturday afternoons for additional seating and events.
“The terminal appeals to so many different constituencies almost at the same time,” Gupta tells me. After Gupta’s daughter was born, his wife would bring the newborn down to the market on Saturday mornings and the couple would do some shopping, enjoy the lively atmosphere and spend some quality time together. “We wouldn’t have done that at a Trader Joe’s,” he says.
THE NEW CO-OP IN TOWN
The South Philly Food Co-op, which has 640 members but has yet to sell a single grocery item, is ready to open for business as soon as it finds a space. Alison Fritz, president of its board and a cofounder, intends to replicate the warmth of shopping at a place like the venerable Weavers Way Co-op in Mount Airy. “We want to open and maintain a store that fully represents the needs and wants of our membership, and we want our membership to reflect the breadth of South Philly,” Fritz says.
The five-year-old nonprofit group, which has expanded through community forums, beer-making workshops and get-to-know-you dinners, has been unable to crack the hot South Philly real estate market. Despite considering some 80 properties and doing site visits at 20, the co-op can’t seem to find the right location between 3,500 square feet and 5,000 square feet that would tick off the necessary boxes in terms of affordability, location and accessibility for deliveries. “Places that are too big are too expensive to operate,” Fritz says. “Places that are too small don’t offer the ability to stock enough product to sustain our financial model.”
When the store finally opens, the South Philly Co-op isn’t worried about competing with other co-ops—instead it views as its biggest obstacle the convenience of chain grocers, especially those with parking. The community component—each household must participate in eight hours of service a year—might give it an edge over the competition. “We’re asking our members to start shaping the vision with us—what the store looks like, what’s in stock,” Fritz says. “In this way, we won’t just be community-owned—we’ll be community-created.”
And in the end, when I reach for my reusable grocery bag and head out the door to shop, that sense of belonging could determine where I spend my grocery dollars. That’s if I can resist the siren call of local apples on sale at the nearest supermarket.