"It was a business decision following thorough review of all of our stores," says Giant spokesperson Jamie Miller.
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The news about the impending closing of Giant, Charlottesville's first upscale supermarket, reminds Mariflo Stephens why she began shopping there in the 1980s as an overworked young mom.
"I'd always shopped at Reid's," says Stephens, quick to note her continuing affection for the local Preston Avenue grocer. But Stephens recalls her thrill to find that the new Giant offered something unique at that time: prepared foods.
"You could get chicken salad already made, take it home, and pretend you'd cooked dinner," chuckles Stephens, who even remembers the day in July 1986 when Giant– then standing alone in the new shopping center– welcomed its first customers.
"There were balloons, and we got free ice cream," recalls Stephens, who attended the grand opening event with another young mother and their preschool children.
While a performance by the Municipal Band may have further added to the pomp and pageantry befitting the arrival of Charlottesville's most upscale supermarket, a spate of newer arrivals appear to have put the hurt on Giant.
In recent years, there's been a Charlottesville grocery explosion. Specialty purveyors such Foods of All Nations and health shops Rebecca's and Integral Yoga have enlarged. Such behemoths as Harris Teeter, Kroger, and Whole Foods have first landed– and then expanded. And even traditionally budget-friendly Food Lion has renovated to include organic food sections.
The focus on fancy foods that are not only healthy but also ethical marks a radical change from past times, when buying meat for dinner was as simple as choosing hamburger or chicken. Hook essayist Janis Jaquith says that's a good thing.
"I think it's a product of the information age," says Jaquith, who covered the opening of the expanded Whole Foods and her own experiments in juicing for health. She recalls working in a Boston-area grocery store as a teenager in the late 1960s.
"The idea of anything being ethical, or caring how a chicken was raised or how it died was unthinkable," recalls Jaquith, predicting that awareness about factory farming and genetically modified crops will continue to guide consumer choices.
Such awareness and the demand for ever greater selection by an increasingly affluent population in the Charlottesville area, has proven magnetic for grocery chains; and now there are three big horsemen on the horizon.
In the past several months, the following mega-chains have announced an impending entry into the Charlottesville market: Wegman's, Fresh Market, and, most imminently, Trader Joe's, which will bring its combination of hipness and rock-bottom pricing just a stone's throw away from Giant.
Even before Trader Joe's opens this fall at the under-construction Shops at Stonefield, the intersection of Hydraulic Road and Emmet Street has become something of a grocery smorgasbord, with both the original Kroger and the new Whole Foods already creating a shopping swarm.
News of Giant's closing has taken many loyal shoppers by surprise.
"I'm sad to hear that," says Alan Bream, a 25-plus-year Giant shopper who learns of the closing as he loads groceries into his car on a recent afternoon.
"It has good produce, a friendly staff, and it's not overly crazy with people," says Bream, favorably comparing the Giant experience with shopping at the oft-crowded Walmart.
"They also have great seafood," adds Bream, who is not alone in his appreciation.
"It's clean, and there are a wide variety of products without being a megastore," says list-carrying shopper Peppy Linden, interviewed while seeking a parsley-like herb called chervil.
"If I can't find it here," says Linden, "I'll try Whole Foods." (She adds that she prefers Giant's prices.)
If customers are open in expressing disappointment, employees of the store are less so.
"The manager's going to ask you to leave," cautions an employee. "There are people who've been here for 25 years. They're out of work."
When approached for comment, that manager, like the employee, declines to give his name and does indeed request a reporter's immediate departure.
"You can't talk to customers in front of the store," says the manager, handing a phone number for the corporate headquarters in Landover, Maryland.
According to Jamie Miller, spokesperson for Giant Food LLC, the Seminole Square store has 56 employees, 17 of them full time. "We're exploring opportunities for them," says Miller, "to transfer to the other Giant store in Charlottesville or to others outside the area."
Confirming the facts in a company press release, Miller says the company reviewed the performance of its 173 stores and decided also to shutter the one in Clinton, Maryland. The other Giant location in Charlottesville, the one that opened on Pantops in 2001, Miller says, is still performing well.
If the 6pm closing on August 30 is bad news for customers and employees, a spokesperson for the firm that manages most of Seminole Square says he's not worried.
"We're looking forward to the future," says the construction manager for Great Eastern Management, David Mitchell, who welcomes the arrival of Stonefield as a traffic generator. But he speaks as though his favorite traffic generator is the Hillsdale Drive Extension, a long-planned road which, via a revamped Seminole Square, will link busy Hydraulic Road at Whole Foods all the way north to Fashion Square.
"The traffic numbers are 12,000 cars a day," Mitchell enthuses. "If we get the road through, I think our tenants will do better."
Mitchell also says he doesn't see the upscale Stonefield as a competitor, as Seminole Square has– with such stores as Big Lots, Marshall's, and Dress Barn– become a discount mecca. (He also cites the planned relocation of Outback Steakhouse from its Albemarle Square location into the former Cheeseburger in Paradise space at Seminole Square as a positive sign.)
"Our tenants are not the high end," says Mitchell. "They're the working class, inexpensive, budget-friendly stores."
As for what might take Giant's place, Mitchell says he's not sure. Whatever happens could take a while since Giant still has about five years remaining on its lease and could choose to hold on to the empty space, something Mitchell acknowledges would be a detriment to the center. (Giant's Miller says the company has made no announcements about disposition of the space.)
Could the Hillsdale Extension make up for lost grocery traffic?
While the road was long discussed, there were several major– and literal– roadblocks. Perhaps most significantly, the road goes through the current location of a four-screen Regal theater near the road's southern terminus. Negotiations seemed headed to a stalemate until Regal decided to build a 14-screen cinema at Stonefield. Securing funding for the Connector was also an issue, but the surprising passage of the Western Bypass by the Board of Supervisors last summer forced the funding of Hillsdale, and the state formally committed the final funds for the $13.8 million project earlier this year.
Great Eastern, too, had its own demands before agreeing to construction of the new road that will require a 60-foot swath to be cut out of the building at the shopping center's north end, where Bounce n' Play is located.
"We're willing to give right of way for the road," says Mitchell, who says the city will offer the shopping center compensation for losing rentable property.
Now, Mitchell says, it appears Hillsdale should be complete in the next three years, and once cars are streaming past, the shopping center will get a much-needed facelift. But with millions of square feet of retail space added to the area since the 1980s, the U.S. 29 corridor is already unrecognizable as the farmland it was when throngs gathered to welcome the brand new Giant.
"It's the homogenization of Charlottesville and Albemarle," says real estate agent and blogger Jim Duncan. "It's good and bad. It's good for more tax revenue, but really bad for the quality of life that attracts people here."
While Duncan rues the prospect of longer commute times, Jaquith sees the influx of quality-oriented grocers as a positive sign.
"Ultimately, I think we're healthier," says Jaquith, who recently turned 60 and sees food choices as lessening her risk of dying– as her father did– from heart disease. The next step, she hopes, is that prices for organic meats and produce drop sufficiently to facilitate healthier eating habits among consumers from all income levels.
"More choice is good," she says. "It brings more competition to the marketplace."