There are some things that you just can’t get at Amazon, or your typical Harris Teeter, Publix or Food Lion store.
At Reid’s Fine Foods in SouthPark, for instance, shoppers can order a glass of wine, watch a basketball game on TV and shop from 60 different local grocery vendors. At Pasta & Provisions on Park Road, customers can sip craft beer while perusing aisles of dozens of homemade Italian pastas and sauces.
As Charlotte’s population has grown, traditional grocery stores have started fighting even more fiercely for customers’ dollars. Some companies have had to lower prices or close stores. But on the other side of the price scale, gourmet specialty grocers are thriving, especially in affluent neighborhoods such as SouthPark, Ballantyne, uptown and Myers Park.
“What we’re starting to see is the return of smaller, more personal shopping experiences as it comes to food,” supermarket analyst Phil Lempert said.
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The grocer will also open a third location in the spot that previously housed Red Sea grocery in Charlotte’s Wilmore neighborhood. Owner Tommy George says the new store should open in about two months.
George said his Wilmore store will have indoor and outdoor seating like the Park Road location, as well as an expanded grocery selection with staples like organic eggs and produce.
“People nowadays just don’t seem to cook as much as they used to. Our option is kind of like the next best thing,” George said. Customers still boil the water to cook the pasta, they still bake the focaccia, they still heat up the sauce.
“People still feel like they’re participating (in the cooking process),” he added.
The rising popularity of meal kits from companies like Blue Apron and HelloFresh is a testament to the trend George has observed: Customers want fresh food, but don’t want to spend a lot of time in the shopping or preparation process.
Other upscale homegrown stores are expanding as well. Reid’s, which opened on Providence Road in 1928, announced last month it will open soon in uptown Charlotte, less than three years after debuting a popular SouthPark location. (Reid’s used to have an uptown location at what is now the 7th Street Public Market, although it closed in 2010.)
After their uptown location opens, Reid’s owners Tom Coker and Al Waugh said they would like to add another store or two in the Charlotte area, such as in Huntersville, Ballantyne or the airport. Then, they’ll start looking into neighboring cities, such as Greenville, Columbia and Raleigh.
“There is a demand for what we call specialty foods,” Coker said.
He and Waugh visit other cities such as New York, where gourmet grocers abound, to pick up ideas and find ways to differentiate their business.
Specialty offerings such as meats and cheeses, meals prepared in-house, gift baskets and local wines are the bread and butter of Reid’s, so to speak, and the company isn’t looking to go beyond that. They’re not looking to compete directly with traditional supermarkets, for instance.
“We start getting into paper towels and commodity groceries, we’re not going to be around for very long. We want to create value for our customers,” Coker said.
Out-of-town upscale chains are also taking advantage of the demand in Charlotte.
Dean & Deluca, the Kansas gourmet chain with stores uptown and in SouthPark, expanded its selection of meat, seafood and produce last spring at its Phillips Place store. Charlotte was the first market in which Dean & Deluca launched its full-service catering last spring, too.
Phoenix-based organic grocer Sprouts is opening its first area location in Ballantyne in April. Lempert, the supermarket analyst, compares the chain to Whole Foods and Fresh Market, but slightly cheaper.
Sprouts has stores that are about the same size as a Fresh Market – about 30,000 square feet, roughly 10,000 square feet smaller than the typical Harris Teeter.
Charlotte’s homegrown grocers are even smaller: The new Reid’s uptown will be 2,100 square feet, about one-fourth the size of the company’s SouthPark store, and the new Pasta & Provisions will be about 3150 square feet.
On the other hand, some of Charlotte’s most popular grocery chains are super-sizing their stores to boost their product offerings and to make room for dining areas, more check-out lanes and in-store conveniences like pharmacies and floral departments.
“These smaller stores that have a unique offering that can answer your questions about food … that’s going to be a huge growth area,” Lempert said.