Giant problem? The surprising silver lining to Seminole's loss

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."


It is sad as I still shop there - the shelves slowly emptying without replacement. I liked Giant for the many reasons stated in the article. I could shop at Whole Foods for a few items and then go over to Giant for much cheaper prices on most of our staples. It had changed some after it was bought out some years ago but improved in other ways. It was one of the first place to have redbox. Many of their employees had work there for many years and were always helpful and courteous-I wish them well.

It's just a store and there are many fine replacements but I don't look forward to learning the new rows, finding out where the heck the pretzel rods are or fighting the traffic at Barracks Road to buy milk. OK enough about some grocery store, now get off my lawn ;)

Not sure where you get your information - maybe just wishful thinking - but Trader Joe's does not have "rock bottom pricing". If that's what everyone in C'ville is getting so hyped up about there are going to be a lot of disappointed shoppers in town. Their own brands are good, and often provide different types of packaged food than other stores (like my favorite spicy hot chocolate) but they're not actually cheap.

Still got Giant at Pantops-and you don't have to deal wth 29North.

Well, if you live north of town, getting to Pantops is usually a bear. Anyway, I never realized that Giant was "upscale."

Great seafood? I guess it's better than Food Lion or Kroger, but that's not saying much.

i'm all for turning Seminole Square and Albemarle Square into parks.

I'm only mildly surprised by this. It has been going downhill since Albert Heijn bought the company. I don't think it was all that radical in it's offerings when it arrived - Kroger at the old Drive-in across Hydraulic was just as revolutionary, though Giant's prices and quality - at the time - were considerably better. I'd hardly say it was "upscale" though.

I tend to shop at H-T in Barracks Rd, and Reid - sometimes Food Lion, but never at Whole Foods (outrageously expensive). I've not been impressed by the other two HT's I've visited.

A few notes...
1. Are there actually people who care how the slimy piece of meat sitting in the cooler mets its fate? Wow, I know a lot of people around Cville who love dogs but can't stand humans, but this is ridiculous.
2. Okay, so there is such a thing as "ethical" shopping? Can I get double-coupons with that?
3. And what is the rationale for Ms. Jaquith's "we're healthier" comment? It may feel good to buy ethically-killed chicken, but the populous is getting fatter, fatter and fatter.
4. And if the left--who often promotes this "ethical shopping" model--thinks that the middle-class is being destroyed, how will regular-joes afford the higher-priced organic and "properly raised" foodstuffs? The only ones who will be able to afford it will be those evil 1-percenters.

R.I.P.: Frank Perdue

My unscientific observation is that Charlottesville's economy is built on UVa and eating. Seems like a disproportionate number of restaurants & groceries for the population.

Lift is right. If you have a good idea that isn't in food, take it to a different city.

People from Nelson, Buckingham, Greene, Madison, Orange, Gluvanna and Louisa frequent the grocery stores in Albemarle.

Prediction.....In one year Whole Foods will close, not because of competition, but because of lawsuits from pedestrians run over at their front door. The parking lot vandalism won't help either.

Giant, Kroger, Harris Teeter, Food Lion, Whole Foods, and now you can add Trader Joe's and the just announced arrival of a Fresh Market into Albemarle square, and the behemoth Wegman's on the south side of Charlottesville. I would say that there's a point when competition ends and market saturation begins, and Charlottesville is about there. There's just not the populace to support all the shopping centers in this town, so it's not surprising Giant is closing it's store in Albemarle square. I think the Giant's Management could see the writing on the wall, considering you had 3 major chains within walking distance of each other. The next victim could very well be Whole Foods. That is if the Hillsdale road extension experiences the delays that the Meadowcreek parkway and the Western Bypass have experienced. Also, they're going to have competition in Trader Joe's and Fresh Market who are going to be located in more advantagous spots than Whole Foods.

While Whole Foods' location makes access very difficult (and the area will get more congested when Stonefield opens) it also seems crowded with shoppers. so, it appears Whole foods' shoppers will put up with a lot in order to pay for their overpriced merchandise. I can't see it closing.

We need another grocery store at Pantops and at Zion Crossroads. The produce is absolutely horrible freshness wise and no organic produce is available at Food Lion, Giant, and Walmart at Zion Crossroads. As far as non-organic goes, you are lucky to find the produce in stock and fresh. The stores are always crowded and short staffed. None of them seem to be able to keep anything in stock on a consistent basis. We dislike traveling out to 29 for organic produce and for other needs. Why are all of these chains locating out to 29? This will only make traffic worse for those who have no alternative. Attention other grocery stores and/or produce chains: Please build a decent place to buy organic, good fresh produce, at Pantops and Zion Crossroads, and a place where we are able to get what you need when you need it. You will get the business--just ask Walmart at Zions and better yet go by there and see for yourself! Even better ask the folks who shop at these places if we need another grocery store. Upon completion of the survey, the answer will be a resounding "yes!"