Gmart

Oscar Guevara cleans an aisle sign inside the new GMart , which will be opening its first Baltimore supermarket in the former Santoni's in Highlandtown in about a month. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / January 27, 2014)

Gmart International Foods, a five-store supermarket chain with two Maryland locations, will open in the next 60 days in the former Santoni's Super Market site in Highlandtown, the shopping center's landlord said Monday.

Gmart signed a long-term lease on the 27,000-square-foot space last week, said Michael Jacoby, CEO of Bethesda-based Broad Street Realty, which leased the space. The center also has a Rite Aid and a Dollar Tree, and a Subway will open soon.

"We think they are a good tenant for that community," Jacoby said. "They cater to a wide audience and carry a wide variety of products not found in a traditional grocer."

Gmart is known for having extensive produce and fruit departments and for stocking foods that cater to Hispanic and Asian customers.

Gmart's website says the store will open in February and workers were in the store cleaning on Monday.

Officials for the grocer did not respond Monday to requests for comment, and other Gmart store managers had no comment.

Although a banner out front announced Gmart's arrival earlier this month, Jacoby said then he had not yet signed a lease with the chain. At the time, he said he had negotiations with four or five national, regional and small grocery operators.

Santoni's, which had 80 employees and 12 years left on its lease when it closed in October, had built a loyal customer base in Southeast Baltimore over 83 years in business. Owner Rob N. Santoni Jr. had said that a citywide bottle tax enacted last year by Baltimore had hurt the longtime retailer and was the "the sole reason" for the loss of business leading to the shutdown.

Gmart, a small but growing operator, is a relative newcomer, having opened its first store in 2012 in Atlanta.

One retail consultant Monday wondered how receptive the Highlandtown neighborhood would be to the largely unknown chain. Its product mix could help attract customers in the diverse neighborhood, said Jeremy Diamond, a director of the Diamond Marketing Group.

But it will take time and effort to build up a following, he said.

"Being from the area carries a lot of weight," Diamond said. "Shoppers want to feel like the owner cares and knows them and will cater to what they want. Just because it will be in the Santoni's spot doesn't mean the neighborhood will flock there."

Diamond said he recently visited the new Gmart in Frederick and thought it lacked anything "special or different."

But the chain appears to be successful in finding strong locations for stores, he said.

Gmart stores opened last year in Virginia Beach, Va., Clinton and Frederick and this month in Fairfax, according to the chain's website. And the website shows four more supermarkets are planned, including one in Alexandria, Va., and others in Alabama and Florida.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com