Graul's may be losing perceived front-runner status to be Rotunda's grocer

Afraid it is losing traction as the perceived leading candidate to be the Rotunda mall's new grocery, Graul's Market is launching a publicity offensive aimed at area residents, city officials and the media.

In an interview with the Baltimore Messenger, Dennis Graul, owner of several Graul's Market stores in the Baltimore-area chain, claims that he was close to a deal with the Rotunda's redeveloper, Hekemian & Co., to open a 20,000-square-foot boutique grocery store in the mall, but that New Jersey-based Hekemian is talking now about having a store of half that size.

"They've retrenched," said Graul, who owns Graul's Market stores in Ruxton and Mays Chapel. He said Hekemian officials broke off negotiations for several weeks, and when he inquired as to why, they told him the developer is going "back to the drawing board" in its search for a grocer to replace a longtime Giant store that left the struggling mall last year

Chris Bell, a Hekemian senior vice president, said he would not comment on any matters regarding negotiations.

Graul has also submitted an article for publication in an upcoming issue of Hampden Happenings, a monthly newsletter published by the Hampden Community Council, in which he extols the virtues of Graul's Market and attempts to dispel "myths" that Graul's is a high-priced upscale chain.

Community Council president and newsletter editor Adam Feuerstein said he plans to run the article n the April issue."Graul's Market does not have a lease deal with Hekemian yet," states the article, which Graul emailed to the Baltimore Messenger. "However, we have been working closely with the developer to try to help the developer meet their promise to open a full service supermarket at The Rotunda. We believe Graul's Market would be a great addition to the Hampden community."

Giant closed its 41-year-old store in February 2012 and opened a new store in the old SuperFresh and Fresh & Green's space in the nearby Green Spring Tower Square shopping center.

Hekemian officials have long said they wanted a 20,000-square-foot grocer in the mall, and sources have said Graul's is one of three candidates. The others are The Fresh Market and MOMS Organic Markets.

Graul said a store of 10,000 square feet would not be a full-service grocer as he envisions it. He too said Graul's, The Fresh Market and MOMS are the candidates, but that MOMS is the only one of the three that would "fit" in a store of 10,000 square feet.

The article for Hampden Happenings is part of an effort to shore up community support for his bid, and to "create some community awareness that the developer is shifting gears," Graul said. "I'm hoping to create awareness that will lead people to reach out to their community representatives."

The article does not mention his claim in the interview that Hekemian now wants a 10,0000-square-foot grocery store, however.

Graul said he has been talking with Hekemian officials for "well over a year," and this is the first time he has done any "lobbying" on Graul's behalf. He admitted it is a risky strategy because, "It can create a real storm for the developer. We're just trying to get to a deal," he said.

When asked if he thinks Graul's is still in the running, he said, "They haven't told us we're out. They haven't told us we're in. We continue to be interested. We're not at odds with the developer at all."

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents the area, said she supports Graul's candidacy and is anxious to bring the area's many seniors in apartment buildings a grocery store that they can walk to without "taking their life in their hands" when they walk down the 41st street hill to the new Giant and then back up the hill to their apartments.

"We have been promised for months and months a 20,000-square-foot grocer in that space," Clarke said.

She said she is also worried that Hekemian may be nervous about competition, not only from the new Giant, but from a grocery store that may be planned as part of a mixed-use development proposed for a vacant lot owned by Johns Hopkins University in Charles Village.

Hopkins has chosen a team headed by Armada Hoffler to develop a mixed-use retail and residential complex with garage parking on the vacant 1.13-acre parcel at the southwest corner of 33rd and St. Paul streets, which the university purchased in 2009. Thew developers are said to be considering a grocery store as part of the mix, and Clarke and the Charles Village community have complained about the potential effect on two existing stores on St. Paul — Eddie's of Charles Village and the University Mini-Mart. A public meeting about that project was scheduled for March 12.

"There's an effort to ask Hopkins to take the grocery store off the table," Clarke said March 8. She said she is concerned that Hekemian might be regrouping based on Armada Hoffler's plans for the Charles Village lot.

"They may be connecting the same dots I am," she said.

Hegelian's Bell would not comment on that, either.

Clarke said she was concerned at first that Graul's might be too upscale and not competitive with supermarket prices in the area, but that she is convinced otherwise.

Graul, in his article for Hampden Happenings, said that Graul's was founded in 1920 and is a fourth-generation family business that had stores in the city until 1959.

"We are NOT a high priced grocer," he wrote. "We offer better service and better quality than other full service supermarkets at affordable prices. A recent survey of a market basket of top selling grocery, dairy and frozen food prices found that Graul's is competitive with Giant."

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