Portland’s high end grocery wars continue

If you’ve got a hankering to open a new, high end grocery store in inner Portland, and your name isn’t Brian Rohter or Eileen Brady, you may want to pause before plunging in.

The slugfest between goliaths battling for your tofu and pitted olives budget has never been tougher. And the turnaround time for failure seems faster than ever. Stores open – and close – in a hurry. But if anything is becoming clearer as we move deeper into the era when consumers simply must have their bottled gluten free water, hand pumped by vegan-living peasants high in the Andes, it is that local whiz kid New Seasons is running the upscale grocery show (locally). The company is everywhere. And Portlanders love it.

Need some evidence of the New Seasons effect? Go take a look inside the Whole Foods store on NE Fremont and 16th some evening. Previously the site of Nature’s NW (the former chain started by the New Seasons team and subsequently sold to Wild Oats, which became Whole Foods), the big flagship store is a busy destination for consumers in search of high priced delectable treats since around the 2000 era.

Or rather, it was a busy destination until a few weeks ago. Then the latest New Seasons store opened about a mile away on N Williams. And now that huge sucking sound you hear – and the wind tunnel absence of customers you see inside the Whole Foods store – is the brutal capitalist market (meaning customers voting with their dollars) at work.

On a recent Thursday night around 8:30 PM, the Whole Foods store was empty enough to roller blade around. Aisles and aisles of the freshest veggies and meats – and no one there to shop. The silence was highly unusual. Had the government shutdown somehow included Whole Foods? The mood was somber. Lots of staff trying to look busy. You could instantly feel something was up. Meanwhile the New Seasons store was packed. A follow up visit on another night to the two businesses at the same time confirmed the trend.

When the market (which is not some disembodied thing – it’s YOU and what you choose to buy) talks, stuff happens. Fast. Look for that Whole Foods store on Fremont to close soon. This won’t be the first time New Seasons has quashed the dreams of a large national chain by simply showing up in the neighborhood. After Nature’s was sold to Wild Oats, the SE Division store lingered on for a while, though with considerably less elan under its new corporate parent. Until New Seasons opened an outlet down the street opposite Ladd’s Division. And then it was like a clock ticking for the poor old Nature’s store.

Of course, Whole Foods overall isn’t going anywhere. In well defended outposts like the Pearl, the leviathan seems to be doing well and is itself a dream crusher. Remember that improbably located “local produce” grocery store in the Pearl on the corner of NW Glisan and 9th? It sprang up sometime this summer and had sandwiches for $9 and lots of expensive stuff. But what the store didn’t seem to have was customers. It seemed the height of folly to open a stand alone high end store a few blocks from Whole Foods, but somebody spent a lot of money doing just that.

And sure enough, on the morning bike commute today I noticed: It’s gone.

When consumers talk, the landscape is reshaped. Another New Seasons is planned for the NW warehouse space where this year’s TBA took place. What might be the impact of a giant new store with everything you need dropping in a few blocks off NW 23rd? Smaller outfits like Food Front on Thurman and City Market on 21st are probably doomed. But then that means those retail spaces will become available for some other use. What opportunities will open for other new businesses? It’s the ripple effect. Every change has a series of impacts – some unintended and unforeseen.

But maybe, despite all the changes, the age old 23rd Ave Grocery, which has somehow survived all other neighborhood upheavals and persists in its own personal Midnight Cowboy time warp (it looks like a Smithsonian artifact from the “Old Portland” exhibit), will outlive them all.

Because at the end of the day, Portlanders need their smokes, batteries, Spam, and Ring Dings, right?