The big story in local food news is the purchase of Greenlife Grocery by natural-foods giant Whole Foods. Greenlife operates two stores: the original one in Chatanooga, Tenn., and a second location, opened in 2004, on Merrimon Avenue just north of downtown Asheville. Whole Foods has purchased both locations.
Whole Foods actually has humble beginnings. It resulted from the 1980 merger of two natural-foods markets in Austin, Texas, one of them operated by a 20-something couple who lived in the store after being evicted from their apartment. Since then, Whole Foods has exploded, absorbing chains such as Wild Oats Markets, the U.K.‘s Fresh & Wild Markets — and now Greenlife.
Both Greenlife and Whole Foods have seen their share of controversy. The Asheville Greenlife was an immediate hit: Within a few months, co-owner John Swann told Xpress the store was generating three times the projected income. But that success didn’t sit well with some Maxwell Street residents, who saw their quiet neighborhood suddenly transformed into a busy commercial area. They voiced concerns about an improperly grandfathered loading dock, highly increased traffic and noise.
Former Xpress staff writer Cecil Bothwell first wrote about the Maxwell/Greenlife battle in the July 12, 2006 article, “The (Non)enforcers.”
“The thriving store quickly became a source of friction with Thompson and other Maxwell Street neighbors. Tractor-trailer trucks used Maxwell for deliveries, blocking traffic at various times throughout the day. Trash bins were emptied frequently, and residents became familiar with the pre-dawn racket of hydraulics and safety beepers. To accommodate the commercial vehicles, the city eliminated on-street parking spaces, and to accommodate Greenlife’s design, a UDO-required buffer was drastically downsized.”
For some Asheville residents, Greenlife became about as big a gripe as the new Staples office supply across the street. Since then, however, Greenlife owners Swann and Chuck Pruett have worked to rectify the situation. In a September 2007 letter to Xpress, Swann detailed those measures:
“Greenlife has been actively taking steps with city staff and members of Council for over a year to develop a plan to improve the truck situation on Maxwell Street. We have also voluntarily taken many other steps since we opened three years ago, [such as] restricting staff parking on Maxwell Street, lowering sound levels by installing a noise abatement wall and installing trash compactors instead of noisy dumpsters, installing a privacy fence and landscaping along our entire loading area, containing and processing runoff water to keep it out of the street, redirecting parking-lot floodlight coverage to avoid neighborhood homes, managing our delivery drivers to reduce truck traffic on Maxwell Street and restricting our receiving hours — steps all taken in response to neighborhood concerns.”
Indeed, the controversy surrounding the store had largely died down, with complaints tending to focus on traffic kerfluffles near the Merrimon entrance and a lack of parking to accommodate the legions of people who almost seem to live on the premises.
Meanwhile, Whole Foods, like just about any large company, also has its critics. Not surprisingly, however, the debate tends to be conducted on a much larger scale: a Facebook page calling for a Whole Foods boycott boasts more than 332,000 members. Most of the outrage seems to be based upon an op-ed piece, The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare, written by company co-founder and CEO John Mackey for The Wall Street Journal.
And while it’s premature to jump to conclusions about the Whole Foods/Greenlife deal, it is important to consider the possible implications for our local food community. On the one hand, Whole Foods has made Fortune magazine’s list of the 100 best companies to work for every year since the grocery chain’s inception. The business has also been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency as a Green Power Partner — the EPA’s highest honor. But Whole Foods now ranks among the largest U.S. retailers, and there’s some concern that the company will gravitate toward selling goods from factory farms rather than the local producers Greenlife worked hard to support.
A joint press release by Greenlife and Whole Foods works hard to assuage such fears, clearly stating that nothing much will change:
“Greenlife is an outstanding grocery retailer and a vibrant and valued part of the communities it serves. We are proud to welcome Greenlife into the Whole Foods Market family. The customers and Team Members who define the Greenlife culture have created a truly special natural, organic and local food community in Chattanooga and Asheville. We believe Whole Foods Market’s presence in the Southeast and our culture as a company will be enriched by this deal with Greenlife,” said Scott Allshouse, president, Whole Foods Market South Region.
According to Greenlife CEO and founder Chuck Pruett, “A deal with Whole Foods Market makes sense for us at this time in our company’s life cycle. Over the last eleven years, we have built a solid foundation for natural, organic and locally grown food in Tennessee and North Carolina. We are particularly proud of Greenlife’s commitment and history of supporting the local food economy. Joining with Whole Foods Market, which shares a similar vision for supporting local and regional food networks, will open up even more opportunities for our customers to shop for the best and widest variety of the foods they value, and expand opportunities for local producers to sell their products. Our Team Members, too, will gain more opportunities to expand their food horizons and careers, thanks to Whole Foods Market’s network of global natural and organic food resources and store locations in North America and Great Britain.”
The deal is expected to close within a couple of weeks. Xpress will be following the story and talking with local food producers to get their take on the buyout.