Flowers and freshly prepared food are the first things you see when you walk into Katuah Market. If you look to the right, there’s a café with exposed wood beams. If you look to the left, there are a few rows of registers where shoppers will check out. Produce separates the prepared food section from the seats where people will eat house-made foods or drink a fresh juice.
If this sounds a lot like Greenlife Grocery, that’s because it is. John Swann, the founder and owner of Katuah Market, was a partner in Greenlife until it sold to Whole Foods in 2010. After the sale, Swann sat on the sidelines for a year watching the transition. He stayed involved in local food with positions on the advisory board at Blue Ridge Food Ventures and as vice president of ASAP Farm Connections. But as Whole Foods transformed Greenlife, and as Earth Fare continued to grow, Swann felt there was room for another grocery in town.
In the past year, Asheville has had its fair share of grocery news. Whole Foods announced a second store for Tunnel Road in 2014. Harris Teeter built and opened a new Asheville store right on Merrimon. Fresh Market announced it was opening a second store in south Asheville. Publix announced its first Asheville location on Hendersonville Road. And of course, 2013 saw the highly-anticipated opening of Trader Joe’s.
Add to that all the existing stores, and it seems like Katuah is a pretty risky idea. “Then again a lot of people were skeptical of us when we did Greenlife because of how entrenched Earth Fare was in this town, and we blew them out of the water in sales,” says Swann. “We have a situation now in Asheville where there are big, big players and they do grocery — meaning packaged goods — very well.” But Swann says Katuah can do a few things that the big stores can’t:
• Fully commit to local: While many grocery stores in town carry local products, Swann says Katuah is making local a cornerstone of the business. In practice, that means they will bring in items from local producers before larger stores will — the way Greenlife did back when Buchi and Lusty Monk were starting out. It also means they’ll stock an extensive variety of local products for categories where Asheville excels.
• Empower category buyers: With no corporate office to route decisions through, buyers can get requests for new products directly from shoppers and those products can be on the shelf for testing in less than a week.
• Make all prepared food in-house: While Greenlife and Earth Fare both make some food in-house, according to Swann they also bring in food from corporate commissaries located out of state. Katuah will make all their prepared foods in-house from high-quality ingredients and on a daily basis.
Swann hopes the differences will make the Katuah store quickly become part of the community. “People used to tell me at Greenlife, ‘It feels good to shop and eat here,’” says Swann. “Part of that is the products and part of that is the look and feel, but a lot of that is the employees.”
In addition to a dedicated staff, Swann hopes the café will play a big role in making the store a place where people gather. It will have a small stage for acoustic live music, it will be licensed for on-premises consumption of beer and wine, and the plan is to let the café operate independently of the grocery store. While the store is tentatively set for hours along the lines of 7 a.m.-10 p.m., the café may stay open a couple hours later.
Katuah Market is at 2 Hendersonville Road, Suite D. The grand opening is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 14. No opening hour was available at press time, but it will be announced on the store's Facebook page.
Katuah by the numbers:
Approximate square feet: 15,000 (about 3,000 smaller than Greenlife)
Parking spaces: 304 shared (102 dedicated)
Staff: 54 employees
Café seating: 80 indoors, 40 outdoors
Registers: 6, with plans for 2 more
Hot and cold salad bars: 24 feet (about 33 percent larger than Greenlife)
Beer and/or kombucha draft lines: 6