hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Locally grown foods at the mall

Supersized Saratoga store aims to show a niche is now mainstream



Contributing writer


Construction workers were busy inside Wilton Mall last month preparing the space that will soon house the region’s largest natural foods and organic supermarket.

New flooring had been installed, refrigeration equipment had begun to arrive, and workers were hoisting metal studs to frame the interior walls of what will become the Healthy Living Market and Café.

The store, in a 35,000-square-foot anchor space formerly occupied by J.C. Penney, will put to the test whether the region’s local and organic foods movement has grown to the point that it can sustain a supermarket-scale retail enterprise.

The new store, expected to open in early 2013, is the second for Health Living Market, a family-run operation that got its start in the Burlington, Vt., area. Its owners say they have been eyeing the Saratoga Springs area for some time.

“There’s a lot of synergy here, and we want to be a community-oriented market in an area where people can have easy access to get to,” explained Eli Lesser-Goldsmith, who serves as the company’s chief operating officer. 

The original Healthy Living market was founded in 1986 by Lesser-Goldsmith’s mother, Katy Lesser, in South Burlington. The family grew the business from a tiny health food shop, with one employee, to become Vermont’s largest natural and organic supermarket, with a staff of more than 150.

The expansion into the town of Wilton, near Exit 15 of the Northway just outside the Saratoga Springs city limit, will include the hiring of about 100 new employees.

The new store will offer many of the features that have become standard at the Vermont store, including an on-site bakeshop, an in-store lunch café, and a full-service supermarket featuring local, natural and organic foods and products.

The store’s owners say they aim to cater to a growing population of consumers hungering for natural foods.

“At the root of the natural food industry are the people who care deeply about food,” Lesser-Goldsmith said. “Typically, they grew their own food, but they also wanted to buy products outside of the mainstream. Stores like ours have become more and more popular, and that trend has not subsided. People want to know where their food is coming from, and we provide that.”


Booming consumer demand
There’s no question that consumer interest in organic and locally produced foods has increased dramatically over the past decade.

Nationally, retail sales of natural and organic foods and beverages rose to nearly $39 billion in 2010 – a 63 percent increase in sales from five years earlier, according to food market research publisher Packaged Facts. Those numbers are expected to double again, topping $78 billion, by 2015.

In response to the demands of health-conscious food consumers, traditional supermarkets around the region have greatly increased their offerings of natural and certified organic products dramatically in recent years. And smaller retailers, such as Four Seasons Natural Foods, a mainstay of downtown Saratoga Springs since 1988, cater exclusively to this growing market.

Member-owned co-op markets, which tend to showcase locally produced foods, have been increasing in size and number. The Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany, for example, recently broke ground on a new 30,000-square-foot building that’s expected to be ready in a year or so, and the Berkshire Co-op Market in Great Barrington, Mass., is planning for another expansion after seeing its annual sales grow from $1.5 million to $8.3 million over the past decade.

New co-op markets have opened in the past few years in Poultney, Vt., and Chatham, N.Y., and organizers are working to set up another in downtown Bennington.

And farmers markets have continued to proliferate and grow across the region, with more of these formerly seasonal affairs becoming year-round operations.

Bigger, for-profit companies, meanwhile, are vying a share of the region’s organic and natural foods marketplace.

In eastern New York, Trader Joe's opened a new 13,000-square-foot store in Colonie, just outside Albany, in August.

And in early 2014, the national chain Whole Foods Market plans to open its first store in the Capital Region. Company spokesman Michael Sinatra said Whole Foods will lease a 32,000-square-foot space at Colonie Center.

There were less than a half-dozen natural foods supermarkets in the nation when Whole Foods opened its first store in 1980. The company’s produce buyers, who are based across the country, maintain relationships with local growers in the communities its markets serve. Sinatra said relationships with some upstate farmers have already been made, in part through the company’s previous market expansion into Westchester County, just north of New York City.

“We’re already well-versed, but we’ll be looking to build on that,” Sinatra said. “We’re always looking for more opportunities.” 

Healthy Living Market’s arrival in the Saratoga Springs area in 2013 could give it a chance to become established before national players like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s consider moving north from Albany.

A boost to farmers?

The arrival of Healthy Living Market and other major retailers offers both opportunities and challenges to local farmers and food producers. The expanding showcase for local foods means the possibility of increasing their sales substantially, but some producers may not be in a position to ensure the quantity – or the price – demanded by supermarket-scale retailers.

Some observers are skeptical about whether the changes will really prove a boon to local agriculture.

“One of the issues that relate to this is how the store defines ‘local,’” said Sandy Buxton, an association resource educator with the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Washington County office.

Buxton said that when products from Washington County farms – such as Sheldon Farms’ potatoes and BJ Farms’ corn -- make it onto the shelves of major supermarkets, the farms benefit from the high-profile exposure. In some stores, however, the term “local” may also mean products grown as far away as eastern Massachusetts or in New Jersey, she added. 

“How local do they view local? It’s important to pay attention to that,” Buxton said. “Another problem is that if you’re selling to some of these stores, there may be an added expense. It’s a different avenue of sales.” 

Chuck Bornt, specialist of the Cooperative Extension’s Capital District Vegetable and Small Fruit Program, said it is too soon to predict any impact on local growers.

“If it was me, I would be skeptical to commit until it’s on its feet and proven,” Bornt said. “Growers would welcome a local market, but it’s too soon to know. There is a question of distribution: How is it going to get there? There are just too many factors.”

Michael Kilpatrick, the owner of Kilpatrick Family Farm in Granville, markets his produce through various channels, including restaurants, schools, and farmers markets in Saratoga Springs and Glens Falls. 

In previous dealings with some smaller retail stores, Kilpatrick said he learned it was not always economical for him to sell to retailers, because some buyers would opt for more inexpensive organic produce from California. 

Still, Kilpatrick said the feedback he’s heard about Healthy Living Market and Café in Vermont has all been positive, and he’s enthusiastic about the store’s arrival.

For its part, Healthy Living Market says it has forged relationships with local farmers and has focused on Vermont agriculture since the inception of its South Burlington store. Now it is looking to build relationships with producers closer to Saratoga County.

“I think it’s great they’re coming in to provide healthy food,” Kilpatrick said. “We’re not in it just for the money; we’re also interested in the way our region eats. It will make a dent. It will reshape the local market. The farmers market may take a hit initially, but I would be the first to admit a new health food store would be amazing.”





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