The Greenlife saga continues

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.



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8 thoughts on “The Greenlife saga continues

  1. annica2

    “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.”

    that quote is entirely off the charts. mackey is a vegetarian who tours the u.s. giving speeches about the horrors of factory farming. with whole foods getting bigger, and expanding more, they’re only becoming a bigger threat to factory farming.

    the reason there are so many people who have joined the facebook page to boycott whole foods is because they were misled into believing mackey’s op ed was some kind of manipulative tactic in support of the typical republican agenda. i can only imagine how many of those who joined the group actually read the article. it has a much more honest, libertarian vision, than what was superimposed by thousands through an intellectually dishonest and shallow move, not even realizing they’re empowering the monsanto, tyson monopoly, who may have even been behind the facade.

    and some more info:

    “Farm Forward’s board of directors is representative of forces that have been united and would most likely have never come together under other circumstances. It includes John Mackey, chairman of the board and CEO of Whole Foods Market; Frank Reese, owner and founder of Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch and president of the Standard Bred Poultry Institute; Jonathan Safran Foer, novelist; Jonathan K. Crane, PhD, ordained rabbi and ethicist; and several notables in other fields.”

    farm forward is all about exposing the horrors of factory farming, and mackey is one of the directors.

  2. James Dunn

    Yay! Whole Foods. They have much more to offer..are NOT more expensive and have better quality food. I always get food poisoning from the Green Life buffet. Nasty. I stopped buying buffet foods from them a long time ago. The Whole Foods in Charleston is so nice and reasonably priced. I hope it comes to Asheville.

  3. ok! I was talking about the Whole Foods I have been to in Washington D.C., L.A.,and San Francisco.
    So if they do price according to region of the country they are in, then this sounds promising.
    And yeah, I agree with James Dunn about the GreenLife Salad bar/ hot bar/ buffet. The food there never looks appetizing…The heated food usually looks overcooked. I never really liked GreenLife’s buffet…..

  4. Doing my part to reduce impact to Maxwell Street residents, eliminating noise and pollution when I deliver Blue Smoke Coffee on my BIKE to Greenlife :)

  5. Clyde From Raleigh

    I worked at the Whole Foods in Raleigh when they first opened with a bunch of transplants from Austin (command central). I got to know the guy that ran receiving and stayed in touch after I left.

    He said in the early days local growers would regularly come by and sell stuff to the produce department. Over time he said that those relationships were pushed aside for larger vendors.

    I think folks in Asheville may want to really push on that issue and do their best to keep local growers in the mix when WF takes over.

    Good luck with it. I may be joining you folks soon so I need a good place to buy groceries!

  6. gin

    Yay! I just hope Whole Foods completely renovates the space and makes it a standard Whole Foods. Green Life is gross!

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