What's Cookin' In North Carolina's Trendy Grocery Store Scene

Dec 22, 2014

Fresh Market's Atlanta Humphrey greets customers at its new grocery store in Durham.
Credit Leoneda Inge

There is a fresh food movement underway and the competition is getting tasty!

One of the most dominant and well-known fresh food grocery store brands in the country is Whole Foods.  It’s in the middle of building 1,000 new stores.

But it’s not the only trendy grocery store snapping up real estate in the Triangle.

Steve Schemm enjoys showing off The Fresh Market that opened just this month on University Drive in Durham, from the poinsettias near the front door to the meat market.

“The back wall really sets us apart from a lot of our competition.  We’ve got great seafood offerings, great meat offerings," said Schemm.

Schemm is Regional Director of Operations for Greensboro-based Fresh Market.  On the same day he was opening the Durham store, a colleague was opening a store in Plantation, Florida.  Schemm says soon, the grocer will be opening another store in Charlotte and a first one in Fayetteville.

"We’re expanding across our entire footprint right now," said Schemm.

The Fresh Market plans to open up to 25 stores this fiscal year, mostly in the southeast United States.

Opening day at The Fresh Market was busy, as expected.  A year ago, Food Lion, North Carolina’s largest grocery store chain sat in that exact spot.  Food Lion’s lease reportedly ran out. But two years ago, the Salisbury-based company announced it was closing more than 100 underperforming stores.

The folks shopping in The Fresh Market hardly remember Food Lion.

Berkeley Yorkery of Durham went in for some milk and ham, but soon filled her basket.  She was familiar with The Fresh Market’s Chapel Hill store. Yorkery said she never shopped at the site when it was a Food Lion, but remembers it.

"I do remember a Food Lion being here.  It was hard to remember, yes, there was a Food Lion and a Kmart here," said Yorkery. 

It’s not easy keeping up with consumers’ changing tastes.

Economist Mike Walden at NC State University says it's good business sense though.

“What we have seen in the supermarket industry is a shift from things that people bought in the past, where maybe they didn’t pay so much attention to health or they didn’t pay attention to freshness as much, or safety. Now all of those things are very important," said Walden.

Whole Foods figured this out a long time ago.  Many of its new stores will be smaller and in urban areas it never considered a decade ago.  This year Florida-based Publix has been making inroads in the competitive North Carolina grocery store market.  Its newest store opened two months ago in Cary, and there are plans for a Publix in Raleigh.

Christie Burris is a spokeswoman for the Carolinas Food Industry Council.  She says grocery companies are responding to North Carolina’s rebounding real estate market and growth in the service hospitality sector.

“You know grocers are going to follow are going to follow population density and income.  And the interest in natural, organic, local, gluten free, all of that is very strong in our state," said Burris.  "And stores are working to get the formula just right to succeed.”

There are 1,700 grocery stores across the state and the competition is on.