Charlotte’s grocery wars leave poor neighborhoods behind

Pedestrians cross West Blvd. near Remount Road. Area residents say their community lacks grocery stores.
Pedestrians cross West Blvd. near Remount Road. Area residents say their community lacks grocery stores.

Getting to the nearest grocery store takes Tribonia Ponder about an hour.

Ponder, who lives off West Boulevard and does not have a car, typically takes the No. 10 bus uptown, then transfers to the No. 2, which drops her off at the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Wilkinson Boulevard. Ponder, who works as a locker room attendant at a fitness center uptown, has five grown kids, and nine grandkids who sometimes accompany her on grocery-shopping trips.

Having a supermarket close by, she says, would make life much easier.

“Shopping with my grandkids is an adventure,” Ponder says. “Plus, you never know if the bus is going to be late or early.”

The West Boulevard corridor is home to approximately 14,000 predominantly low-income residents, most of them African-American. Those who want to shop nearby can choose from a handful of small convenience stores and gas stations, as well as two Family Dollar stores. What they won’t find nearby is a full-service supermarket with a full selection of fresh produce, meat and dairy.

“Our residents have to travel beyond the community boundaries to access fresh healthy groceries and other amenities,” says Rickey Hall, a longtime resident of the West Boulevard area and president of the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition.

Less than 3 miles away, it’s a different story, as Charlotte’s grocery wars heat up in the heart of fast-growing South End.

Publix opened a 55,000-square-foot store – its 12th in the Charlotte region – in 2015 at South Boulevard and Iverson Way. Less than half a mile down South Boulevard, construction on a new Harris Teeter store is underway – and half a mile from there, German grocer Lidl is planning a new 33,000-square foot store.

It’s a pattern repeated in other higher-income parts of Charlotte. In Cotswold, a new Publix is under construction across Randolph Road from a Harris Teeter. And in the Arboretum area, near another Harris Teeter, developers are seeking approval to rezone an office park to accommodate a 49,000-square-foot grocery store, rumored to be a Publix.

The paradox of Charlotte’s grocery wars heating up in some areas, but not others, underscores the uneven economic growth in a city that has ranked among the worst in America for providing opportunities for poor residents to lift themselves out of poverty.

“If we were to create a map of food deserts and places where you would consider cultural deserts, places that don’t interface with cultural institutions ... it wouldn’t surprise me if all of those would line up in the same way that middle school proficiency, officer-involved shootings and concentrated poverty do,” says Brenda Tindal, a Charlotte native and historian at the Levine Museum of the New South.

The seven grocery stores that have opened in Mecklenburg County since 2015 are located in thriving, predominantly white neighborhoods where the median household income is nearly 50 percent higher than the county’s median of $56,800, according to an Observer analysis.

Developers continue to target higher-income areas like uptown – where a Whole Foods is going up on Stonewall Street, and where Publix is planning a store on North Tryon – and remain less likely to build in lower-income areas.

Retailers, too, tend to follow population growth – more rooftops mean more profits. That’s especially true in the grocery industry, which operates on thin profit margins. It’s no wonder grocers are flocking to South End: Up and down South Boulevard, new restaurants, breweries, clothing shops and offices are popping up at the same time renters flock to the area. Mecklenburg County has permitted more than 20 apartment developments in the South End area, worth some $360 million since 2012, records show.

In its 2015 “State of the Plate” report, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council identified three areas in the city as “high food insecurity risk areas” – the West Boulevard Corridor between Billy Graham Parkway and I-485, the Brookshire Boulevard corridor between I-85 and I-485, and the Albemarle Road corridor between I-485 and the Mecklenburg County boundary line. Simply put, experiencing “food insecurity” means a job loss or a car breakdown could disrupt your household’s access to food.

In these areas, where the median income is lower than that of the county, most people could reach a full-service supermarket by car within five minutes. Trouble is, many don’t have a car. Over half of those in the report living in “high food insecurity risk areas” listed transportation as a challenge. And even for those who have cars, options are limited. There are simply fewer food stores of any kind in those areas.

“It really comes down to median income of the census tract that you’re in. A lot of these lower-income areas aren’t going to see a major grocer come in,” says Katherine Metzo, a principal at Elemental Research and Consulting and an author of the report.

“Most food insecurity is episodic, not chronic. Hunger is not a huge problem in Charlotte, but food insecurity is,” Metzo explains. “Maybe you lost your job and had to sell your car. Or suddenly you’re not working, so now you have to go far outside your neighborhood to buy milk.”

On West Boulevard, Robin Lunn’s family has owned the BP gas station for years. She said having a full-service supermarket in the West Boulevard area would “mean a lot” for her customers.

“We have a lot of groceries (at the gas station), but it’s not the same. We don’t have meat – it’s a lot of canned goods and stuff like that,” Lunn says.

Location, location, location

Phil Lempert, a supermarket industry analyst, says he sees opportunity for smaller format stores – such as Wal-Mart’s new convenience store concept, as well as low-cost European grocers Aldi and Lidl – in lower income areas like those identified in the State of the Plate report.

“Those (grocers) are the ones that make money and serve at the same time,” Lempert says. A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said there are no plans yet to open convenience stores in Charlotte. Lidl and Aldi have not disclosed plans to open new stores in the three areas identified in the report, either.

“For traditional supermarkets – Wegmans, Harris Teeter, Kroger, and the like – they have to look at what can the market do to really support a store that’s 50,000 or 60,000 square feet? Can they generate a couple million dollars in sales each week in that area?”

For Matthews-based Harris Teeter, for example, factors involved in site selection include size and configuration of sites, existing and future traffic patterns, the proximity of existing Harris Teeter stores, as well as other demographic and economic considerations, including residential growth, according to spokeswoman Danna Robinson.

Florida-based Publix, which entered the Charlotte market in 2014 and competes most closely with Harris Teeter, declined to discuss the site selection process. But, “all of our stores are exceeding our projected sales,” spokeswoman Kimberly Reynolds said.

Still, some grocers like Food Lion do cater to lower-income shoppers – spokeswoman Christy Brown-Phillips said the company’s heritage is rooted in “low prices and convenient locations.” The Salisbury-based chain did not open any new stores in the Charlotte area over the last couple of years, but it did recently wrap up the $215 million renovation of its supermarkets in the Charlotte area.

Bi-Lo also has converted three of its Charlotte stores into Harveys Supermarkets over the last year. Harveys focuses on low prices and has a special price point called the $1 Zone, in which 650 items are priced $1, including beverages, canned goods, cleaners, meals, greeting cards, baby and health items. None are in the “food insecurity” risk areas – although one, on Albemarle Road, sits close by.

A total of 27 grocery stores – nearly all of them Food Lions – are under renovation or have recently been renovated around the Charlotte region. Unlike Mecklenburg’s new supermarkets, these stores are in areas where the median income is less than the county’s average, an Observer analysis found. Most of those stores are also in neighborhoods where minorities comprise more than half the population, records show.

Community activism

Efforts are underway in areas like the West Boulevard corridor to create neighborhood-run grocery co-ops, or nonprofit food-buying clubs.

Hall, president of the area’s Neighborhood Coalition, has been involved with trying to get a supermarket to open in the area for almost three decades. His efforts began in the early 1990s, when the federal government seized the property of the Westover Shopping Center at the corner of West Boulevard and Remount Road. The shopping center sat vacant and neglected for a decade before it was turned into City West Commons.

Hall says all kinds of stores were approached – including Food Lion, Bi-Lo and Winn-Dixie. Nothing materialized. So now, Hall is teaming up with other residents to launch a 15,000-square-foot community co-op grocery store and gardens at the corner of Clanton Road and West Boulevard. It’s a five-year effort that will cost an estimated $6.6 million. Among other things, the project will include a learning lab, gardens, production greenhouses and a co-op grocery store. Wells Fargo is helping to fund part of the initiative.

Metzo lauds such grassroots efforts.

“It’s not the same as having a grocery store and I wouldn’t pretend that it is, but it’s an important step in gaining a partnership at the level of people who are in a position to affect policy in a big way,” she says.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta