Editorial: Not so Wild a Notion – A Small Grocery Store Can Work in Easton

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There is probably not a day that goes by in downtown Easton when at least a few of the pedestrians that pass the now abandoned Safeway on Harrison Street don’t shed a tear for that missing food store. While a few might have some affection for the food store chain itself, it is more than likely that much of the grief is felt for the end of an era when walking or biking to a grocery store was an real option.

Since Safeway’s departure, a solid core of downtown residents now must now pile into their cars (if they have one) to head off to the larger food stores off the Bypass or Route 50, adding to Easton’s traffic pressures and rush hour congestion.

What makes this a particularly melancholy affair is the growing feeling that the old Safeway will not be occupied anytime soon with a replacement. In fact, it is more likely that no large food chain, even if permitted to locate there, would find it cost-effective to establish a such a small footprint venue.

This predicament is not unique to our community. With a return on investment in doubt and competition severe, these corporations are electing to drop their small stores and expand the number of “superstores” outside downtowns, allowing more parking and easy access for cars.

The result for Easton, sadly enough, is a substantial retail gap in our downtown district and, more importantly, quality of life.

But maybe it is not so wild a notion to imagine a return to a smaller scale, traditional grocery store (think of the beloved Todd’s on Aurora Street) capable of serving Easton’s growing pedestrian community and provide a modest profit.

The fact of the matter is that there are several models, in all different types of settings, that show that one does not need a 50,000 square-foot grocery chain store to succeed.

One remarkable example can be found on Race Street in downtown Cambridge. The Simmons Center Market has been serving its community since 1937 with marginal parking and a less than a convenient location for motorists. But with a regional reputation for quality meats and reasonable prices, the Central Market continues to strive notwithstanding its proximity to a Walmart Superstore and Food Lion chain store in the same town.

Looking beyond the Eastern Shore is the extraordinary story of the Bi-Rite grocery store in San Francisco, which provides no parking in a community without parking, and yet yields $4,000 per square foot. By contrast, traditional supermarket revenues are said to produce $200 to $300 per square foot while a Whole Foods store brings in $900 to $1,000 per square foot.

A four minute mini-documentary on Bi-Rite Market

It is with these kinds of case studies that should encourage one of our many local entrepreneurs (and their potential investors) to see a way forward to offer a similar experience for Easton’s downtown. We can only keep our fingers crossed that they do.

 

Letters to Editor

  1. Howard Freedlander says:

    Return of a small grocery store like Todd’s would be an unmissable asset to Easton, providing a welcomed contrast to the town’s large grocery stores. Economic feasibility would be a challenge. A reincarnation of a Todd’s-type store would be something well worth imagining.

  2. Alan Boisvert says:

    Easton needs a Traders Joes. Perhaps Earth Origins can expand into the Safeway. Downtown is in desperate need.

    • Ezra Finkin says:

      I second the motion for an Earth Origins expansion. Regardless of which company fills the space, can an incentive be offered to sweeten the deal for a grocery store? Not having a grocery store within walking distance of downtown Easton to serve those without a car seems to be in the public interest.

  3. Many thanks to the Spy for keeping the idea alive that the former Safeway store in downtown Easton can actually continue to provide healthy food within walking distance of many communities of varying incomes. There are great models around the country and Simmons Market in Cambridge is a terrific one. Potential Easton investors and community members should also know that outside help is available. The Reinvestment Fund manages the Maryland Food Access Initiative which provides grants and affordable loans for land, renovations, equipment, and other necessities for grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods (see reinvestment.com). The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development also supports this effort through its Fresh Food Financing Initiative.

    Thanks again to the Spy for highlighting the need for healthy food access in downtown Easton.

  4. Paul Weber says:

    Great article and inspiring video about a successful small grocery store in San Francisco. There is no question in my mind that having a grocery store in downtown Easton is necessary to maintaining a vibrant community. If we expect people to live in the downtown area, there should be a walkable grocery store. I challenge our town leaders to design financial incentives that would encourage existing grocery stores and/or entrepreneurs to consider locating a store in the downtown area. If cities can design economic incentives that compel large companies like Amazon to locate in their neck of the woods, we surely should be able to do likewise on a much more doable scale. Let’s be creative and lead the charge instead of lamenting another lost opportunity!

  5. Lin Clineburg says:

    I agree with the statements below, for Easton. I also thought of Earth Origins. However, think of the community such a store would serve. Senior housing being a large part of that neighborhood. Food prices need to be affordable and choices available across the board for all citizens.

    We have a similar problem in St. Michaels with the closing of the Acme. It serves two economically divergent neighborhoods, many of its customers without transportation, save walking.

    How to remedy this situation? Give it good, strong consideration. We need to meet our communities’ needs to keep the community viable.

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