New Whole Foods store to feature a taste of New Orleans

From aisles named for nearby streets to brightly painted boiling pots marking check-out lanes, the new Whole Foods Market on North Broad Street looks more like a slice of life in New Orleans than a big-box corporate chain come to town.

That’s by design.

“We want to belong to the community,” general manager Ernest Roy said. “I want to make sure that we really support our locals.”

There is a lot riding on the project. City officials hope the store will serve as a catalyst for further retail growth in underserved neighborhoods.

Nearby residents and business owners are looking to it to propel the revitalization of a long-slumping area that is now beginning to show signs of life.

“I haven’t talked to a business owner who is not thrilled about Whole Foods opening up,” said Josef Wright, president of the Greater Mid-City Business Association. “It’s going to bring more people into Mid-City. It’s going to raise property values.”

The Broad Street store, the second Whole Foods location in Orleans Parish and the third in the metro area, opens Tuesday. The project is an adaptive reuse of a former Schwegmann Bros. and later Robert’s supermarket, which had been vacant since Hurricane Katrina.

About 800 people are expected to turn out Saturday for a preview of the store before it opens to the public.

At 25,000 square feet, the store is about half the size of Whole Foods’ Veterans Memorial Boulevard location. It is also slightly smaller than the chain’s 30,000-square-foot Uptown store on Magazine Street.

Despite the smaller space, the market will carry most items familiar to Whole Foods shoppers. It has a salad bar and an olive bar, as well as a bakery and prepared foods section.

“It’s an important project because it provides a much-needed amenity in an area that doesn’t have a lot of grocery options,” said Rod Miller, president of the New Orleans Business Alliance. “It’s reaching a population in one of our food deserts, if you will.”

The store also will offer more than 330 local products from more than 70 suppliers.

Local touches permeate the market’s design. The words “Locally,” “NOLA” and “Community” appear above the produce section.

A sign calling for “10ish items” or fewer accents the express lane check-out, presumably a nod to the city’s laissez-faire attitudes.

The market will employ about 125 full- and part-time workers, 74 percent of whom live in Orleans Parish.

The grocery store is just one part of a 60,000-square-foot complex in the former supermarket building. The full ReFresh Project, the endeavor’s formal name, will also include Tulane University’s Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine, the central office for FirstLine Schools, offices for Broad Community Connections, community space and Liberty’s Kitchen, which is moving from its location at Tulane and Broad this summer. The restaurant will also provide a “gumbo bar” to the Whole Foods store.

ReFresh received a $1 million loan through the city’s Fresh Food Retailer Initiative to help with construction costs.

Whole Foods, a retailer that gained the nickname “Whole Paycheck” because of its reputation for high prices, is planting its flag on an unremarkable stretch of road in an area surrounded by a high rate of poverty.

The question of affordability was raised last Saturday at a meeting that drew about 60 Mid-City residents to discuss plans for the store with Ernest Roy, the general manager.

To dispel the notion that the store will be too expensive for people who live nearby, Whole Foods is offering “value tours,” Roy said. The tours are designed to introduce the community to Whole Foods products, particularly those that are budget-friendly, like the company’s 365 line.

The store is also partnering with the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine and nearby community centers to provide menu ideas, recipes and shopping guides to potential customers.

Roy said he believes residents will find the store pocket-friendly.

Miller called the Broad Street Whole Foods a “proof-of-market” project with the potential to convince other retailers, who had written off New Orleans because of doubts about residents’ spending habits and capacity, to give the city another shot.

If it performs well, the store could boost the city’s economic development efforts by demonstrating to retailers that demand in New Orleans exists in unexpected places. It would also teach retail scouts to evaluate not just the area immediately surrounding a potential site, but also those neighborhoods within a 10- or 15-minute drive, Miller said.

“(Broad Street) is an area where there is a significant amount of traffic driving through,” said Miller, whose organization provides traffic studies and other reports to retail operations considering New Orleans sites for business. “I suspect that this store is going to outperform its projections, which is the most important reason why it’s a catalyst.”

The Whole Foods store is part of an expanding list of big-box retailers and chain stores that have recently opened, are under construction or have announced plans to move into New Orleans, including Walmart, Winn-Dixie and Petco.

The New Orleans Business Alliance expects that major retail projects in the city will total 1.5 million square feet of new development by the end of the year.