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Faith Hope Consolo
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In the News

Whole Foods Readies First of Four New Branches in City

When it opens its doors on March 29, the Whole Foods store on the Lower East Side will be the first of four new branches the company will open in the city over the next two years. With more than 66,000 square feet, 650 employees, and a build-out price tag that real estate sources estimate to be as high as $40 million, the latest and largest store shows how the expanding organic sensation is rushing to meet the city's vast customer base.

Distinguishing the newest store from its predecessors in Chelsea, Columbus Circle, and Union Square will be a culinary center where chefs will hold cooking classes, the franchise's first-ever fromagerie dedicated to rare cheeses, and a café accommodating 300 patrons. Whole Foods's existing stores in New York City are seen as dazzling success stories. The bustling store at Union Square is said by a local business group to serve about 80,000 customers a week.

Stores in TriBeCa and near Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal are scheduled to open in 2008, while an Upper West Side branch has a 2009 opening date, a company spokesman said. Development at the Brooklyn location has been beset by concerns over allegedly toxic soil and some neighbors who think there are too many parking spaces planned.

Many Lower East Side officials and residents, however, said they're thrilled with the nearly completed branch on the south side of Houston Street between Chrystie Street and the Bowery.

The executive director of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, Roberto Ragone, said local businesses that still struggle to generate daytime interest would receive a boost from the supermarket. "The neighborhood has needed to recover from 9/11 and the '90s when the economy took a downturn and there was crime," he said. "Even though it recovered, it's recovered primarily as a nighttime destination."

Council Member Alan Gerson, who represents the district, said that Whole Foods' arrival was not just a step further from the Bowery's past of danger and drugs, but also a diversion from its current tag as the temporary home to recent college graduates. He said the new supermarket showed that the area was not just growing, but growing up. "It signifies that the neighborhood has become a more longer-term residential area. It shows that the stratosphere has changed beyond the young, bohemian crews just getting started out."

"It's like the stamp of approval for the Bowery," a retail broker for Prudential Douglas Elliman, Faith Hope Consolo, said. "It says that the neighborhood has finally arrived because Whole Foods is very stringent about picking stable socioeconomic areas."

As with the arrival of any large chain store, there are some concerns for independent businesses. A Whole Foods spokesman, Fred Shank, said that the Austin, Texas-based company tries to incorporate local vendors as much as possible, adding that some vendors in the Union Square Greenmarket also supply the nearby store. "People are in Whole Foods with Greenmarket bags and in the Greenmarket with Whole Foods bags. We create footfall that helps everyone."

The owner of a wine shop near the Bowery location, Frank Giresi, said he disagreed with this philosophy: "If I were a small hardware store and you were Home Depot, who would come to me to get a hammer once you moved in?"

Mr. Giresi, who has owned Elizabeth & Vine for 18 years, has led a campaign with fellow local wine and liquor merchants to prevent the new Whole Foods from selling those items. He said that a combination of groceries and alcohol would give the supermarket "an unfair advantage" over independent shops. The efforts of Mr. Giresi, as well as Community Board 3, which also opposed granting a liquor license to the store, paid off recently when the State Liquor Authority, for a second time, denied Whole Foods' application.

The district manager of Community Board 3, Susan Stetzer, testified at the latest State Liquor Authority hearing on behalf of local wine stores. In an interview, she said, "The Whole Foods site is an urban renewal site and we've been very involved in establishing something that would benefit the community and that's more groceries, not more beer or wine."

Mr. Giresi added: "They come off as this crunchy, granola, ‘we do everything for the community' kind of store, but then they go and fight the Community Board on this. I call them Wal-Mart without the preservatives."

Ms. Engel, the Whole Foods spokeswoman, declined to comment on the liquor license issue and could not confirm whether or not the company had established relationships with any independent suppliers on the Lower East Side like they have with the Greenmarket. Many local vendors, however, said they were unfazed by the impending opening.

The Fourth Street Food Co-op, a store that specializes in organic and locally grown goods, is just blocks away from the new store. A Co-op member and volunteer, Kate Greenfield, said she didn't think the new store would have a large impact on their business, especially when there was already strong competition in the area.

"We don't recommend that you blacklist Whole Foods or anything," she said. "It would be disingenuous to say we're concerned about it when there are plenty of other organic stores currently within walking distance from us."

Although the Batista Grocery in the nearby Essex Street Market also specializes in hard-to-find produce like Whole Foods, its owner, Luis Batista, said he was pleased residents were getting a big supermarket. "The area is growing, so it makes sense for the stores to grow too. The neighborhood probably needs it."

 

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