Aug 21

Whole Foods 365 store a ‘strong statement’ for Independence Heights

For decades, Mardie Paige drove 10 minutes out of her neighborhood to shop at Kroger stores in nearby Heights and Oak Forest.

There were no major grocery stores in the traditionally African-American neighborhood off the North Loop, the 63-year resident of Independence Heights and president of the local super neighborhood council recalls.

“We’ve always had corner stores, but never any grocery stores,” she said. “Nothing for the last 20, 25 years.”

With the opening of Whole Foods Market 365 Wednesday, Paige can now drive three minutes from her home to shop in her own neighborhood. She called the new store a boon to Independence Heights, long a food desert.

“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for the community,” Paige said. “As an underserved neighborhood, we’re often overlooked.”

The new Whole Foods, 101 N. Loop West, is the Austin-based grocer’s first 365-branded store in Houston and its 10th nationally. The 365 store concept, launched in 2015, focuses on Whole Foods’ private-label line of food products. The smaller stores also seek to appeal to younger, less affluent shoppers who are health- and price-conscious.

The 30,000-square-foot Houston store carries 400 fresh produce items, including about 200 organic items, as well as 75 different cheeses. Several local and state food products, such as Wrights of Texas salsa and Kerbey Lane Cafe queso, are also sold.

The store also features a mix of fresh produce, meat and seafood. For the lunch crowd, there is a salad bar and a small custom-order section selling $7 sandwiches and $12 pizzas. The 365 store also has a Peli Peli Kitchen serving South African cuisine, as well as Juice Society, an Austin-based company serving coffee and juice.

Amazon, which acquired Whole Foods last year for $13.7 billion, is offering its Prime members discounts of 10 percent or more on select Whole Foods merchandise.

“We will hold our own to any Whole Foods store,” general manager Gerardo Rojas said during a media tour.

Whole Foods is able to offer lower prices on traditionally pricey organic food, because of the 365 stores’ floor layout and technology, company spokeswoman Melissa Metz said.

The Houston store, which employs about 90 workers, features large display cases and drop-in freezers where staff can drop in boxes of food products, instead of unloading and stocking shelves.

Wide aisles with electronic displays help customers find what they’re looking for. There is even an electronic kiosk in the wine and beer section where customers can pair spirits to meals.

In addition, the Whole Foods 365 offers shoppers the ability to purchase staples, such as rice, flour and cornmeal, on a per-pound basis, which cuts down on waste. Customers can use electronic scales to weigh, bag and print price labels, saving time at the nine checkout lanes, three of which are self-checkout.

“There’s a lot of convenience here that shoppers can take advantage of,” Metz said.

Fidelis, which developed the Yale Marketplace shopping center anchored by the Whole Foods 365, sought to attract the companay to Independence Heights because the area was underserved by grocery stores, said R. Carson Wilson IV, vice president of leasing and a partner in the project.

The 61,000-square-foot retail center is now 86 percent leased. Tenants include Verizon, Orange Theory Fitness and Fajita Pete’s, among others.

“365 was a Whole Foods growth vehicle at the time and they wanted to pattern it as a concept for younger family and millennials, which we felt would be perfect for the surrounding communities,” Wilson said in an email.

Yet many retail observers scratched their heads when Whole Foods announced plans to build a Houston 365 store in 2015, said Jason Baker, co-founder of Baker-Katz, a Houston-based retail real estate firm.

The store’s location, at the corner of Yale and the North Loop, was not a typical Whole Foods spot, Baker said. The grocer usually operates higher-end markets in tonier neighborhoods such as Upper Kirby and the Galleria.

But as developers started to build new homes in Independence Heights and nearby neighborhoods, the store’s location made more sense, Baker said. Nearby, a community-driven initiative has yielded the new Independence Heights apartments, as well as another apartment-commercial project now under negotiation.

“It’s in the path of growth,” Baker said. “What’s happening in the Heights is shifting north to Garden Oaks and Oak Forest.”

Some believe the new Whole Foods will accelerate gentrification.

“Even though it’s 365, it’s still a Whole Foods,” retail broker Jason Gaines of Houston-based NAI Partners said. “For Whole Foods, that’s a huge flag being put in the ground. It’s definitely a strong statement that this area is on the upswing.”

Paige, whose family has lived in Independence Heights for decades, said she welcomes Whole Foods.

“The neighborhood is changing, Houston is changing, Texas is changing,” Paige said. “We’re going to have to learn to live with the changes.”

The local super neighborhood council, along with a group of area churches and the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council, are reaching out to every new company, development and homeowner moving in, Paige said.

The neighborhood coalition worked with Whole Foods to ensure the new store reflected the community. Together, they worked with local artist Danny Asberry El to paint a mural on the side of the Whole Foods, depicting the history of Independence Heights, its city hall, Burgess Hall, churches and choirs.

The coalition also pushed to keep prices affordable so that nearby residents can shop there, Paige said. She said she has been happy with the outcome so far.

“It’s when you start leaving people out and pushing people away that the beautiful history that we’re trying to protect seems to dissolve,” she said.


By Paul Takahashi

Houston Chronicle – Read the Original Article HERE

Correction: Danny Asberry El is the artist behind the mural on the Whole Foods 365 in Indipendence Heights. An earlier version of this story misspelled his name.