Whole Foods is headed to Richmond proper. In early May, Whole Foods Market announced that it had signed a lease for a 40,000 square foot store in the Sauer Center, a planned mixed-use development on the north side of Richmond’s historic Fan District. Although a Whole Foods has been firmly ensconced in the burgeoning suburb of Short Pump since 2008, a swiftly-developing area about 7 miles west of the city in Henrico County, this store at the Sauer Center will be the first taste of the chain within the city limits.
With a mix of new construction and historic buildings, the Sauer Center will include not only the 133,000 square foot former Virginia Department of Taxation (previously the home of the Stephen Putney Shoe Company), but also the 103-year-old C.F. Sauer Co. spice factory and headquarters. The 20-foot by 60-foot animated “Sauer’s Vanilla” sign still lights up the night sky. Whole Foods has not yet announced a target opening date or its specific location in Sauer Center, but the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Whole Foods will likely replace the storefront presently occupied by Pleasant’s Hardware, another longtime family-run Richmond establishment until its purchase by the C.F. Sauer Company in 1989.
Although Whole Foods is infamous for devouring whole paychecks in exchange for its environmentally sustainable, animal friendly, fair-trade fare, it promises to be a large draw to the nearby affluent Fan neighborhood. Richmond is fast becoming a city that supports businesses that provide well-crafted food, sourced in a sustainable and ethical manner—particular specialties of Whole Foods.
The Fan Opens Up
More to the point, the Fan has been coalescing into a neighborhood with businesses that draw customers from morning through the evening hours. Roughly two miles west of the planned Sauer Center Whole Foods stands Ellwood Thompson's Local Market, a thriving local store dedicated to organically grown from nearby farmers. In addition, local restaurants and watering holes, like Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, encourage evening foot traffic.
While Whole Foods prides itself on being responsive to meeting consumers' demands, it will be entering an increasingly competitive local grocery market, where new stores are seeking to fill the vacuum left by the closing of the regional chain Ukrop’s in 2010. The influx of grocery stores is projected to outpace, if it has not already, the city and the surrounding counties’ capacity to consume.
At the same time, a recent mayoral Food Policy Task Force report noted that Richmond contains about 40 neighborhoods that are food insecure—that is, with low-income residents who live more than a mile from the nearest grocery store. Most of these neighborhoods lie on the city’s South Side, although large pockets of low-income and low-access residents are also found in the East End and North Side of the city. The projected Whole Foods will likely do little to address issues of food insecurity in Richmond, because it will not be near neighborhoods in need or provide food at in the low-income price range. Indirectly, however, Whole Foods can potentially raise the city’s tax base by attracting further development nearby. In addition, Whole Foods can be become a key donor to the nearby Central Virginia Food Bank.
In terms of the competition in Richmond's grocery market, the Sauer Center Whole Foods will be positioned to do well. Aside from a Kroger a half-mile to the east, Whole Foods will be the only grocery store within reasonable walking and easy biking distance of the Fan. What's more, this location lies enticingly close to the proposed route for Richmond’s Bus Rapid Transit, a proposed bus system that would travel a dedicated lane roughly from downtown Richmond to the recently revamped Willow Lawn Shopping Center along the city’s western edge. (Although Richmond was home to the first trolley system in the United States in the early 1900s, it currently ranks 92 out of 100 top U.S. cities in public transit access, according to a 2011 Brookings Institute study.)
Nevertheless, Whole Foods and the Sauer Center will be vital components of a commercial hub that could develop along the Rapid Transit line in the future. Furthermore, the RVA Bus Rapid Transit itself raises the hopeful prospect of increasing the economic, political, and social cohesion of the entire Greater Richmond Area. Reliable transportation could boost employment and education opportunities primarily available to those with cars in affluent zip codes. Such a blossoming of regionalism and accessibility would require the city and surrounding counties to bridge historically deep racial and economic divisions.
The Sauer Center’s Whole Foods also has the potential to be a boon to the health and future of many Richmond residents given its close proximity to institutions of learning. Whole Foods has a well-deserved reputation for increasing people’s access not only to healthy food but also to food education through its Whole Kids Foundation and Whole Cities Foundation. Two public elementary schools, one public middle school, and one public high school lie within a mile radius of the planned Whole Foods, and beyond that is a public middle school, a high school, two private high schools, and a private middle school. Two institutions of higher learning are also nearby: Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) along with its medical school and Virginia Union University (VUU), one of the nation's oldest historically black colleges.
With FeedMore (the Central Virginia Food Bank combined with Meals on Wheels) a mere mile away and urban gardening movements growing through the work of Shalom Farms, Tricycle Gardens, and the William Byrd Community House, the opportunities abound for collaborative efforts at cultivating awareness and engagement on issues of food justice and land use. Many houses of worship and faith communities also stand close by, ready for deeper theological engagement and outreach on these fronts.
While Whole Foods at the Sauer Center could simply end up being a stop for affluent consumers, there are good reasons to think it will eventually boost employment and general area investment. With the resources, power, and social commitment that Whole Foods has, the possibilities for profound community enrichment are palpable.
Nelson Reveley lives in Richmond and is a PhD student in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on theological ethics in relation to the economy as well as the environment. He is also an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA).