Gourmet & go: New look of convenience

Inside, the shelves were stocked with organic snacks, produce and wine. Outside, a cheerful green-aproned employee wiped windshields and pumped gas. And seemingly everywhere at the new Johnson Family Markets in Mooresville, customers' faces shared the same look of curiosity: What is this place?

That's fine with owner Matthew Johnson, who opened the 6,000-square-foot natural market, convenience store and full-service gas station this month off Interstate 77, Exit 33. In an age of megastores, the Mooresville oral surgeon and real estate developer is hoping to win customers by thinking small.

Sitting in his medical office next door, Johnson, 42, says he'd always wanted a healthy convenience store, “kind of like a smaller version of Trader Joe's, with the ability to get gas.” So he built it himself, in Mount Mourne Springs, a development designed to evoke the open-air shopping centers he'd enjoyed while serving with the Army in Germany.

Though the concept is new to Mooresville and unusual in the Charlotte region, smaller-format food stores are springing up and catching on in other parts of the country.

British grocer Tesco entered the U.S. market late last year with the launch of Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets – which are about 10,000 square feet in size – in California, Arizona and Nevada. And other chains – including Wal-Mart, Safeway and Chicago-area chain Jewel – have also announced plans for similar compact stores.

In doing so, they're aiming to appeal with shoppers with the same mindset as Johnson. “I'm a hyper person,” he says. “I like getting in, getting what I want and getting out.”

By that measure, even stores such as Trader Joe's, which he admires, are too large. “Our whole thing is ‘conveniently organic,'” Johnson says. “I want (customers) to feel like just because you're stopping at a convenience store doesn't mean you can't get something (of good) quality.”

To win customers, of course, you first have to lure them inside, which is partially why Johnson's store also offers full-service Shell gas at no extra charge. Monday, it was selling regular unleaded for $3.99 a gallon, about six cents cheaper than a conventional gas station down the street.

The hope, Johnson said, is that the service will allow someone to go inside and check out the store. Though it does entail higher labor costs, he said, he believes it will even out by bringing in greater volume and engendering loyalty.

“So many people are trying to make a profit off gas,” he said. “I just offer it as an added convenience. It's the same as offering a restroom. It allows a person to stop.”

In the parking lot, attendant Jackie Vorwald, 16, a rising junior at Mooresville High School, waited for cars to arrive. She was wearing a yellow polo shirt, green apron and black scally cap. When she offers the full service, she said, “a lot of people are just like, ‘What?'” Many don't want it, thinking it will cost extra.

As if to prove her point, a shiny black late-model Suburban pulls in and a middle-aged man steps out.

“Hi, welcome to Johnson Family Markets,” Jackie says. “We have full service gas here, free of charge.”

“Oh, that's all right, I can get it,” the man replies.

Jackie walks back over. “It's pretty much always like that,” she says.

Men, she noted, seem to be reluctant to let a girl pump their gas, though the elderly and others are more enthusiastic.

“In the winter, if they're still doing the full service, who's not gonna want to sit in their car if it's freezing outside?” Susan Kersey of Mooresville, who was on her way home from work, asked as Vorwald wiped her windshield.

That afternoon, the market attracted bursts of interested browsers, though the Dairy Queen next door – which Johnson also brought in – seemed to be doing brisker business. Firefighters in T-shirts and overalls stood near the beverage area, bottles of soda on one side and a wall of “regional, organic and biodynamic” wine on the other.

The rest of the store is full of similar contrasts, stocking Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Penguin Natural Foods Porcini Risotto, 24-ounce tall boy cans of Natural Light and bottles of New Grist Sorghum Beer and other microbrews. Recycled paper products and natural cleaners are within feet of the cigarette counter.

So far, assistant manager Bella Hux said, organic meats – including ostrich and buffalo – have sold well. Canned goods haven't caught on as quickly. A salad bar is coming soon.

Business is slowly picking up, Johnson said, as people realize the store is there.

“I'd rather get stuff at one stop like this than make two stops,” said Stephanie Oliver, a Mooresville teacher who came to get gas and check out the store. She usually shops for natural and organic products at farmers markets and in Davidson, she said.

Louisa Dow of Mooresville, who also visited the store for the first time Monday, goes to Trader Joe's when she has time and said she believes there's “a huge void” for gourmet food stores in the area. Though she said she isn't sure Johnson's store has quite enough selection, the concept is interesting.

“It's a little unusual,” she said, examining a bag of natural cane sugar. “I do want the whole idea to work.”