Imagine Whole Foods, without so much imported food, sticker shock and glitz. Or picture a farmers' market, open nearly all week long, with a roof over its head and maybe even a stock of grocery items like natural cereals and recycled paper towels.
A new breed of corner store is popping up in and around Baltimore. Inspired by the local-foods movement, a handful of small independent markets are on the drawing boards, nearly open, or already up and running. Even given the down economy and the thin margins typical of the supermarket industry, there's a sense that there is a market for a locavore grocery store.
"People are becoming — and thank goodness for this — much more educated about food, where it comes from, how healthy it is, and that it's OK if it's not organic but you know the source," said Ned Atwater of Atwater's Naturally Leavened Bread. "The customers are people who are willing to spend a little bit more of a percentage of their income on food than they were in the past."
Atwater will supply breads, soups and pastries to the Baltimore Food Co-op, a local and natural-foods grocery store expected to open in Remington by mid-spring. He also plans to open a local-foods market of his own, one that would sell grass-fed beef and dairy. He'd stock fresh local produce in season and canned local produce when it's not. A deal to buy a building in Catonsville recently fell through, but Atwater hopes to find another location and go ahead with the plan.
Milk & Honey Market opened in November at 816 Cathedral St., in an old Mount Vernon pharmacy, offering panini and espresso as well as local produce, dairy and meats.
And in Northeast Baltimore, the chef-owner of Clementine plans to open The Green Onion at 5500 Harford Road, one block north of the restaurant, in May or June. While the goal is not to create a full-service grocery with the likes of laundry detergent and disposable diapers, the 1,500-square-foot store will have local dairy, eggs, produce and meats, as well as charcuterie from the restaurant.
"I want [it] to be grocery enough that you can go in there and buy a meal," said chef Winston Blick of Clementine. "It's not going to be all micro-greens and wheatgrass."
Perhaps the most ambitious of these ventures is the Baltimore Food Co-op, which aims to be a full-service supermarket emphasizing local food. It will take over the 5,000 square feet now occupied by Mill Valley General Store, at 2800 Sisson St., greatly expanding the local produce, meats and dairy Mill Valley now sells and adding shelves of natural grocery items. It will be open six days a week, up from the current four.
"The goal is a one-stop food-shopping experience, with a local-first philosophy and what I call 'real food,' " said Cheryl Wade, owner of Mill Valley, who will become general manager of the co-op. "No GMO [genetically modified organisms], no high-fructose corn syrup. Just wholesome, real food."
In addition to local foods, the co-op will stock some national natural brands. It will be a place where shoppers can pick up a hunk of local cheddar as well as a box of Kashi crackers to put it on. Wade said she'll be able to price those national brands competitively because she'll buy through the National Cooperative Grocers Association, a business services group for natural food co-ops.
In the past year, as Wade has tested the market for more grocery items, she has started stocking products like WestSoy soy milk. She initially priced a quart carton at $3.99. Now that she buys through the NCGA, she can sell it for $2.19. She's not saying what she pays for it, but her profit is actually higher now.
The co-op will be open to any shoppers, but those who pay the one-time $100-per-household membership fee will be entitled to a 2 percent discount on all items and weekly members-only specials. There will be a small annual renewal fee but none of the work hours traditionally required of co-op members.
Once 1,000 people pledge to become members, Wade will send out invoices asking for their $100 fees, and then with that $100,000, she'll buy the fixtures and inventory she needs to transform the store. She's just shy of 800 pledges.
"We've had a wonderful response," she said.
The store will open in the area that Mill Valley currently uses as retail space. Eventually, Wade hopes to expand into a back room, for a total of 6,500 square feet.
As for what the co-op will stock, Wade said she'll be looking for locally, sustainably raised foods, though not necessarily certified organic, noting how the term has been appropriated by some agribusiness outfits.
"A factory farm can be certified organic, a la E. coli in your lettuce last year," she said. "For us, it's more about responsible farming, responsible processing of food. ... The most important thing is vendor integrity. To me, vendor integrity is everything. You develop those relationships with people who are geographically close. A lot that we sell is not certified organic, but the integrity of the producer is such that we know there is nothing untoward going on in the production."
When it comes to farms Wade deals with directly, "We reserve the right to show up 24/7, 365, unannounced. Anybody who balks at that …," she said, her voice trailing off.
As for the national brands the co-op will carry, Wade will rely on third-party organizations that verify the farming and production practices meet certain standards. "There's a lot to keep up with but also a lot of support organizations that let you know, for free," she said.
The co-op has a back-to-the-future feel for Wade, 57, who grew up not only in the grocery business but on top of it. When she was a little girl in the 1950s, her parents ran a small market, Wade's Delicatessen, in the basement of their home on Rittenhouse Avenue in Halethorpe. Wade sold penny candy at the counter after school and went on in adulthood to work in supermarkets like Food Fair and Food-A-Rama.
Mill Valley and the planned co-op are closer to that long-gone basement grocery than the conventional supermarkets where she spent most of her career. All of the meat and dairy in her parents' store came from nearby producers, not because local was a hot new culinary trend, but because that's mostly how food was distributed back then.
Wade owns Mill Valley with David Aronson, her partner in life as well as business. They have three part-time employees and expect to have 15 part-timers and two full-timers when the co-op opens. They began Mill Valley in 2002 in a 625-square-foot space atop a hardware store on 34th Street. It started as a garden center, but it also stocked locally produced jams, jellies and salsas.
"It was always the goal to incorporate gardening and food," Wade said.
In April 2006, the store moved to a long brick building that once housed the Baltimore Broom Machine Factory, expanding its food offerings but continuing to stock gardening supplies. The look is industrial chic without the chic, all exposed brick walls and factory windows and bare-bones fixtures. The no-frills approach has helped make Mill Valley a relatively affordable source for local foods. The store has been known to sell Gunpowder ground bison for less than Gunpowder itself sells it directly to shoppers at area farmers' markets.
Over the years, Wade has rented stalls inside the store to independent vendors, who sold things like artisanal pickles and natural lip balms. While the stalls will be gone, some of those items will be available on the shelves of the co-op.
This time of year, the produce supply at Mill Valley tends to be mostly limited to root vegetables, cold-hardy greens like kale and collards, and local apples stored since fall. Since all but the most hard-core Mid-Atlantic locavore still wants his coffee, chocolate and orange juice, the co-op's selection will expand beyond what's available locally though a Florida-to-New-England distribution network that happens to have its meeting point in Pennsylvania. The store will have citrus fruit and orange juice, but only from Florida, not from California or overseas. Wade recently started selling bananas. Those hail from Ecuador, but they're fair trade and certified organic. She'll also stock sustainably produced coffee and chocolate.
The co-op concept has excited many of Wade's longtime customers, including John Segal, a business consultant who has volunteered to act as president of the co-op board. His wife, Dr. Christy Schoedel, a pediatric ophthalmologist, is a board member.
"This isn't something we're just looking to market to the wealthy of Roland Park and Guilford," he said. "We're looking to be able to make available food that's locally grown, healthfully grown and, most important, at reasonable prices."