What's In Store

Earth Fare embarks on ambitious growth plan with latest Charlotte store

Earth Fare is about to make Charlotte’s cutthroat grocery wars even more intense.

The Asheville-based grocer opened its latest area store Wednesday morning in Steele Creek, marking its 50th overall location. The new store is the first of many the natural foods retailer plans to open in the region as Earth Fare embarks on an ambitious expansion.

In an interview Tuesday, CEO Frank Scorpiniti said the company plans to open another 50 stores across the U.S. in the next five years, effectively doubling its store footprint. Earth Fare will add another five or so stores to the seven it currently operates in the Charlotte region, Scorpiniti added.

There’s room for Earth Fare to grow because it offers something that its competitors do not, Scorpiniti said.

Earth Fare sells natural and organic foods that are free of hormones, antibiotics, trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, bleached flour and artificial colors and flavors. As shoppers become more conscientious about nutrition, there’s a growing demand for stores like Earth Fare, Scorpiniti said.

Earth Fare’s so-called “food philosophy” doesn’t end with its groceries. Even the soap the retailer uses to clean its floors is free from harmful chemicals. Earth Fare has a chief medical officer who advises the leadership team and and writes customer communication.

“There’s a movement toward health and wellness in the United States,” Scorpiniti said. “Customers’ desires are changing.”

Earth Fare opens its newest Charlotte store Wednesday morning in the Steele Creek area. This will be the Asheville grocer’s seventh in the region. Katherine Peralta kperalta@charlotteobserver.com

But in Charlotte, Earth Fare faces a growing number of tough competitors.

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Phoenix natural grocer Sprouts, for instance, entered the Charlotte market last spring with a store in Ballantyne. Whole Foods, bought by Amazon in summer 2017, opened its newest Charlotte location uptown last summer.

Harris Teeter and Publix continue to expand their offerings of natural and organic products, and go head-to-head for customers: Publix opened across the street from Harris Teeter in Cotswold last June, and Publix signed a lease for its first SouthPark store in December.

None of them, however, follow Earth Fare’s clean “food philosophy,” Scorpiniti said. “We are the only ones who do what we do.”

“I often marvel, if you go into (a competitor’s) store and you start turning the packages over, and you’re reading the ingredients, sometimes the presentation of health and wellness is unfortunately not met by the content on the shelf.”

Earth Fare commands just a sliver — roughly 0.4 percent — of the Charlotte region’s grocery-store market share, making it the No. 20 grocer in the area, according to a 2018 report from sales-tracking firm Chain Store Guide. But the company has been expanding its presence here: Along with the Steele Creek location, Earth Fare also opened a Fort Mill, S.C., store in October.

Earth Fare’s cheese section features cheeses from four types of animals: goats, cows, sheep and water buffalo. The Asheville natural foods grocer opens its latest Charlotte store Wednesday in Steele Creek. Katherine Peralta kperalta@charlotteobserver.com

Earth Fare, which was founded in Asheville in 1975 as a company called “Dinner for the Earth,” is also renovating its existing stores. The one in SouthPark, for instance, is getting its sit-down eating area revamped.

“The acceleration of the growth really comes from the access to capital we now have with our private equity partner,” Scorpiniti said, referring to Oak Hill Capital’s 2012 purchase of the chain. Earth Fare has stores as far north as Kalamazoo, Mich., and as far south as Florida, but most of its locations are in the southeast.

Earth Fare’s stores are around 24,000 square feet, roughly half the size of the new stores that traditional grocers like Harris Teeter and Publix have opened in recent years.

The new Steele Creek store also has a bakery, sections of bulk nuts and spices, a pizza station, a sandwich counter and a packaged meals-on-the-go section. The prices, however, aren’t as steep as customers might expect from other natural or organic foods stores.

At the Steele Creek store, for instance, avocados are three for $2. Two boxes of Annie’s organic mac & cheese cost $3, and bananas are 49 cents per pound.

Earth Fare opens its newest Charlotte store Wednesday morning in the Steele Creek area. This will be the Asheville grocer’s seventh in the region. Katherine Peralta kperalta@charlotteobserver.com

“Sometimes there’s a misconception, that to eat healthy you have to spend more,” Scorpiniti said. “We’ve tried really hard to break that misconception and make sure we have offerings in here that allows anyone to get past that barrier.”

The new Steele Creek location opened at 7 a.m. Wednesday. To celebrate the opening, the store will be giving away gift cards to the first 200 customers in line on Saturday morning, starting at 7 a.m.

As the retail and sports business reporter for the Observer, Katie Peralta covers everything from grocery-store competition in Charlotte to tax breaks for pro sports teams. She is a Chicago native and graduate of the University of Notre Dame.