Foodies were positively ecstatic Wednesday upon hearing that Whole Foods Markets will open a store in the Buffalo area.
For Deborah Tracy, it conjured memories of fresh quinoa salads and chefs whipping up cool dishes in the aisles. The Amherst resident made special outings to the supermarket when she visited her sister in North Carolina.
“It’s a unique shopping experience, there’s nothing like it,” said Tracy, 41. “It makes grocery shopping fun, and walking into one actually makes you want to eat healthy and make better food choices. It’s that kind of place.”
The Austin, Texas-based company said the Buffalo-area store would open in 2016. The company declined to identify the location, but one source said the chain has been focused on the long-vacant Bon-Ton store in the Northtown Plaza after spending months looking at several sites in the area. The deal may involve a sale of a portion or even all of the plaza to an out-of-town developer that Whole Foods is working with, the source said.
Whole Foods will be joining an increasingly crowded market of specialty grocers. And while the chain has a reputation of high quality organic and whole foods, it is also known for its high prices.
A Whole Foods spokesman said the company’s move into Western New York is by popular demand.
“After many years of hearing from residents of Buffalo, and its surrounding communities, we’re thrilled to officially announce plans to bring a Whole Foods Market to Western New York,” spokesman Michael Sinatra said in a release. “We will announce the exact location in partnership with the developer in the near future.”
Whole Foods operates 14 stores in New York State; the 15th is scheduled to open in Albany in June. The company also has six stores, including the Western New York site, in development throughout the state, Sinatra said.
Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of brands consultant Strategic Resource Group, said he expects Whole Foods to be a big hit here.
“They’ve always done well in mid-size cities that have a high level of education and a large number of junior colleges and universities with a sizeable number of students,” he said.
Flickinger said Whole Foods could open five to seven stores in the Buffalo, Rochester and Southern Tier markets by the end of the decade.
With conventional retailers, from Wegmans to Target and even Walmart adding organic products to their shelves, the competition for shoppers seeking tofu and granola at better prices has increased. That’s caused Whole Foods to put more of a focus on reducing prices as the chain tries to show that it can compete for more mainstream shoppers, and not just those with expensive tastes.
Flickinger said he thinks both Tops and Wegmans can withstand Whole Foods’ entrance into the Buffalo Niagara market. Wegmans has learned to compete with Whole Foods in the Boston market, Flickinger said, while Tops’ traditional strength in the mainstream grocery business should hold up. Tops also recently opened its Orchard Fresh concept store in Orchard Park, which is designed to appeal to more upscale shoppers seeking items that traditional supermarkets often do not carry.
Local grocers aren’t fretting Wholesale’s looming arrival.
“We never forget that there are many other places where people can shop for food,” Jo Natale, Wegmans director of media relations, said in an email. “When a retailer opens a new store nearby, we don’t change course.”
Frank Curci, Tops president and CEO, said in an email: “Tops has been a significant part of this community for 52 years, and we’re very happy with our place in the market. We tailor store size, format and product offering to suit each neighborhood and that resonates well with our customers.”
Joe Dash, owner of Dash’s Markets, said his business will also “continue doing what we do. We’ve had a lot of success with our program, and we’re going to stay on our path.” Dash added the upscale store might not be a good fit for a “blue-collar area” like Western New York.
“Whole Foods’ nickname is ‘Whole Paycheck’ because they are very expensive,” he said. “They do a nice job, but I don’t know there’s a ton of value in their stores.”
Tracy, a letter carrier, begs to differ. She recalls the prices correlating with the quality of foods. “The prices tend to be a little higher, but it’s like anything, you want good quality food, you have to pay more,” she said.
Another shopper sees landing such a desired store as a vote of confidence for the region. “Its great news for Buffalo,” said Katie Krawczyk, a local business owner who was a frequent Whole Foods customer when she lived in the Washington, D.C. area. “I think whenever a national or regional chain decides to come here, it’s a good sign that the area is doing well, economically. It’s a vote of confidence because Whole Foods is a coveted retailer across the country. It’s really a coup for this area.”
News Business reporters David Robinson and Jonathan Epstein contributed to this report. email: email@example.com