An inner-city Baltimore grocery chain is closing its stores, delivering a blow to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's efforts to eliminate the city's "food deserts" and provide more residents with healthy eating options.
An official of Stop Shop Save, a minority-owned business that has been a Baltimore mainstay since 1978, confirmed Tuesday that it had already closed five stores and will close the last one — on Harford Avenue in Oliver — leaving neighborhoods across the city without a convenient grocery store.
One in five Baltimoreans already lives in a "food desert" — an area where grocery stores with fresh food are not within an easy walk.
City officials say, though, that the closures reflect the competitive nature of the retail business and are not a setback to the mayor's strategy. Even factoring in the closure of the Stop Shop Save stores, the city has nearly the same number of supermarkets as it did two years ago — 43.
"When these things happen, it doesn't at all deter the mayor's resolve or commitment to those communities," said Kevin Harris, a Rawlings-Blake spokesman. "The mayor doesn't turn a blind eye and say, 'Well, we've tried.'
"When a store leaves, we stay with the community and work to provide additional options to them."
The city said it already helped recruit Save-A-Lot to take over the local chain's Mount Holly and Upton stores.
At least two other supermarkets are coming: ShopRite in Howard Park next week and MOM's Organic Market planned for the redeveloped Rotunda in Hampden when it opens late next year. The city will also relaunch its "virtual supermarket" project later this month with ShopRite, allowing residents to shop for groceries remotely and have the goods delivered.
The city is expected to update its food desert map in September, which will show the pockets in the city where poor residents, at least 40 percent of whom lack vehicles, must travel farther than a quarter-mile to shop at a grocery store that offers produce, meat and dairy.
While Stop Shop Save CEO Henry Baines didn't respond to requests for comment Tuesday, Willie Brown, the store manager for the Harford Avenue location and a company employee for 27 years, confirmed the chain's closures.
"Everybody else is already laid off," Brown said. "We [are] the only ones left. We will probably close after we sell out inventory; it could be a couple weeks. They might say today is the day."
While it's not clear how many people lost their jobs, city officials say they connected displaced employees from the stores with job training.
Jeremy Diamond, director at Diamond Marketing Group and an industry consultant, said Stop Shop Save could not be price-competitive with other discount grocers such as PriceRite and ShopRite, spurring city customers to travel farther to escape the food desert.
"Stop Shop and Save, their focus was always on the inner city and appealing to the lower-income household," Diamond said. "At the end of the day, the customers are going to look at their wallet, and if they can get the same product cheaper somewhere else they might hop on the bus or hop in the car."
Still, the closures of the Stop Shop Save stores create hardships for some.
A handful of shoppers Tuesday picked through goods remaining at the Harford Avenue store, strolling through near-empty aisles to take advantage of the last sale — a liquidation offering 30 percent to 50 percent off all items.
"The store is going to be missed," said customer Kevin Butler. "It was a community favorite for everyone to come together and see each other and get groceries. I'm not sure where I'll go now."
The pending closure is bad news for families without cars who say they can no longer walk to pick up provisions for dinner or stop and grab a snack.
Oliver resident Nathaniel Noble said he's patronized his neighborhood Stop Shop Save for as long as he can remember, and he's sad to see the business on its last legs.
Northwest Baltimore resident Yvonne Epps, who did most of her shopping at the Stop Shop and Save on West Cold Spring Lane, said the business saved her time and gas money.
"It all started so good, was so convenient — this has been going on for years here," said Epps as she shopped the Oliver store's liquidation. "You're shocked at how things just ended."
It's been a decade of decline for Stop Shop Save, once regarded as the nation's largest minority-owned grocery chain with 16 locations and hundreds of employees.
Sales have fallen from $69.4 million in 2004 to $28.1 million last year, according to a market study by Food World and Food Trade News, which covers the grocery industry in the Mid-Atlantic.
Stop Shop Save stores in the 5600 block of the Alameda, the 3400 block of Clifton Ave. and the 2700 block of W. Cold Spring Lane have closed within the last couple of weeks, Brown said. The locations on North Monroe Street and Pennsylvania Avenue were the first to close.
Without the backing of a large franchise, Stop Shop Save erred in stocking all of its shelves with the same products, as opposed to individualizing inventory to each location, Diamond said.
"From what I've seen from Stop Shop and Save stores, they have pretty much the same merchandising units they've had across all their stores," Diamond said. "When you cater to the specific neighborhoods, you'll definitely draw in more customers and keep them.
"Having a niche like that is extremely important, and that's what these [other] independents do so well: They know what a customer wants and stocks it for them," he said.
Independent grocers operating in low-income pockets of Baltimore face additional challenges without the safety net of a corporate franchise like Giant or Mars to fall back on, said Jeff Metzger, publisher of Food World and Food Trade News. Technology is key to retaining customers, Metzger said, from implementing more efficient systems in-store to establishing digital rebate programs to keep them coming back.
Stop Shop Save faltered in recent years and has "become rather static," Metzger said, by not investing in the company's future.
"It's a business that can be fruitful, but what it's not is a get-rich-quick business," Metzger said. "And once you fall behind the curve a little bit, it's easy to slip into lesser significance rather quickly."
Brenda McKenzie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm, said officials tried to work with Baines for at least two years to find look for a buyer for the Stop Shop Save stores, finding some success with the agreement that Save-A-Lot would take over two of the locations.
McKenzie said other grocery chains, including Aldi and Harris Teeter, have expressed interest in opening new locations in Baltimore. Recruiting more supermarkets also was a focus of city officials who attended the Las Vegas retail real estate conference in May that was hosted by the International Council of Shopping Centers.
Talks are continuing to find other outlets to take over Stop Shop Save's others shuttered stores, McKenzie said.
"We are still working," she said. "It's a challenge and an opportunity for us. We have a really strong market, great neighborhoods and locations."