Last week, Ernesto Ferdinand walked into Laurel Health Foods for the first time since it moved from Route 1 to Main Street two years ago. Ferdinand was a frequent customer at the former, much larger location for many years for products he uses for hay fever and other problems.
"Today I have acid reflux and am so glad I found her [owner Monika Price], because she always fixes me up," Ferdinand said. "I ate some spicy chicken yesterday and I couldn't sleep all night. I've taken six or seven Tums and nothing."
Now that he knows where the store is located, Ferdinand was sorry to hear that Price is preparing to close Laurel Health Foods and leave the historic district when her lease expires this month.
The good news is that Laurel Health Foods, which Price's mom, Maria Lowe opened 44 years ago, won't disappear completely, but will be downscaled in a much smaller location.
Price's sons, Philip and Curtis Price, own a 6,000-square-foot CrossFit gym at 14210 Cherry Lane Court, and are designing a space for the store in the gym's current reception area. It will have shelves for vitamins and other products and a freezer and refrigerator for edible goods.
Price moved her store to the 300 block of Main Street two years ago in hopes of attracting more customers, but the foot traffic she expected never materialized and limited parking on Main Street was an issue.
"I lost customers because a lot of them were older with health issues and were used to pulling up to the store on Route 1 to park, but here, it was harder on them," Price said. "We have parking in the rear but you have to come through an alley to get to the front."
With fewer customers, Price said she made enough to pay her $2,000 monthly rent, but it was hard to keep her shelves stocked. However, the biggest hit to her business was this year's harsh winter.
"Business was really slow in January, February and March. On real cold days, there was no one in the store and one day, when it snowed, I didn't open at all," Price said.
Price said as the year progressed, she felt as if she was trapped in quicksand and sinking slowly with no signs of things getting better.
"A small loan would have gotten me out of the hole to restock the store and finish the kitchen," Price said, referring to plans to restart the small cafe she ran at her Route 1 site that served soups, sandwiches, smoothies, pizzas and other items that catered to diabetics. "When the bank wouldn't give me a loan, that was when I felt it was time to close. I liked it here and hate leaving Main Street, but the more I prayed over this, the worst it seemed to get, so I said, 'maybe it wasn't meant to be.' "
Montpelier resident Maria Agres, who has been a Laurel Health customer for more than 16 years, was taken by surprise when she came in to shop and Price told her she was closing the Main Street store.
"I thought this would have been a better location for her but she's got to do what she has to do," Agres said. "But it's OK with me and it doesn't matter where she is because I'll find her."
Price's son Curtis Price said they are making 400 square feet of space available for the store in their gym. He called the relocation a perfect fit for the gym.
"It's always been my goal to have all of this under one roof," he said. "A lot of gyms offer smoothies, but to have a 44-year-old health food store component is unique. This is a beautiful merger because our clients are athletes and if you work out, you probably use many of her products."
The store will still be called Laurel Health Foods because he said they are not looking at the Main Street closing as an end to a family legacy, but simply a necessary change to keep up with the times.
"Forty-four years ago, you didn't have a Whole Foods or regular grocery stores selling health products for less," he said. "So, we're drastically cutting out overhead expenses and products that didn't sell well."
Monika Price, who received a grant from the city that's set aside for businesses that locate to Main Street, said she might have been able to attract more customers if there were more retailers on Main Street. She also thinks landlords being required to spruce up their buildings would attract more people to Main Street.
"The difference between Ellicott City's [Main Street] and here is appearance. Looks are everything and if it looks pretty, people will come," she said. "You shouldn't have air conditioners hanging in windows and roofs looking run down here."
Alicia Fields, who markets Main Street to prospective businesses, said she is talking to property owners about facade improvements. She's encouraging them to take advantage of a city loan program for Main Street that provides loans up to $25,000 for building improvements.
"A lot of education needs to take place about our programs [for Main Street]," Fields said. "I've gotten to know quite a few of the owners and we need to communicate more and work closer together so we're all on the same page."
For Fields, that means attracting eclectic art, boutique and eatery tenants that will bring more foot traffic to Main Street. She says the street is 85 percent occupied and that she is putting together a data base of potential tenants.
"We've made some progress in identifying businesses that will create traffic to sustain others on Main Street so stores like Laurel Health wouldn't have to close," Fields said. "I'm sorry to see Laurel Health go. Once she regroups, we'll welcome her back to Main Street."
But Curtis Price said the store will probably stay under the same roof as the gym.
"This will be so much easier for us all and a nice change. I think my grandmother would see it as a no-brainer, considering the landscape of the health food industry, the growth of the gym and the reduced overhead," he said. "She downsized the old [Route 1] store when she needed to and would've probably come up with the ideal first for the move."
Monika Price agreed and said, "I wanted to hang on to the store for mom and our customers, the generations of families that have been coming here. I think mom would be OK with this. It will be a good move."