The Baltimore-area Graul's grocery chain is one of three vying to open a boutique market in the Rotunda mall.
"We've been looking into it since the early part of the year," said Dennis Graul, president of Graul's Markets Inc., which owns the Graul's stores in Ruxton and Mays Chapel.
Other family members own two Graul's in Annapolis, one in Hereford in north Baltimore County, and one in St. Michael's, on the Eastern Shore, Graul said.
"We are a contender for the location, but we're not in final negotiations," he said, adding that he has made a presentation to Hekemian & Co., the mall owner, and has also talked to City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke.
Hekemian, which is planning to redevelop the small, struggling mall, is seeking a grocery of up to 20,000 square feet to replace a longtime Giant supermarket, which left the Rotunda in March.
Hekemian officials would not comment on who is a candidate for the Rotunda space, but Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said Graul has spoken to her and that Graul's is one of three candidates for the Rotunda space. Clarke said she does not know who the other two are, but sources close to the selection process said the three candidates are Graul's, MOMS Organic Market, based in Washington, and The Fresh Market, based in Greensboro, N.C. Both of those chains have stores in the area, including in Baltimore County.
A spokeswoman for The Fresh Market said the company does not comment on negotiations for new stores until deals are finalized.
MOMS Organic Market officials did not return calls for comment for this story.
Speculation in the community has focused on Trader Joe's and The Fresh Market, but a spokeswoman for Trader Joe's said last year that Baltimore City wasn't in the company's short-term business plans.
Graul's is known for personalized service and prepared foods for customers who don't want to cook. But although the chain's reputation is as a specialty grocer, Dennis Graul said a store in the Rotunda mall could be "all things to all people," reflecting the area's socio-economic diversity and a large population of seniors, many of whom live in high-rises within walking distance of the Rotunda.
Graul said the mall "sits at the crossroads of several demographics," from affluent Guilford to Hampden, with its mix of blue-collar workers, artists and young professionals.
The Ruxton Graul's store already draws heavily from north Baltimore neighborhoods, based on data from those customers who use a Graul's discount card, Graul said.
A Graul's in the Rotunda "can reach the average and upscale shopper," he said.
He conceded that Hekemian might be more interested in a bigger, more national chain. But, it's also possible that the New Jersey-based developer would feel most comfortable with a Baltimore-centric grocer that is well capitalized, with no debt, he said.
Eddie's not interested
Eddie's of Roland Park, which has stores on Roland Avenue and on North Charles Street in Baltimore County, isn't interested in a Rotunda store because the mall is too close to Eddie's on Roland Avenue, owner Nancy Cohen said.
Cohen, whose business model for Eddie's is similar to Graul's, called the chain "a friendly competitor," and wished Dennis Graul luck.
Clarke, a strong advocate of opening a new grocery store in the Rotunda as soon as possible, has complained that seniors now have to walk down the hill and back up to the relocated Giant in the Green Spring Tower Square shopping center in the Hampden area..
But Hekemian officials have said it's not feasible for a grocer to move in now, only to have to close when redevelopment begins.
Graul said he would prefer to move in sooner, with access to 40th Street, but conceded, "It would be a mess."
He is willing to wait until redevelopment is done, he said.
"We had that discussion with the developer already," and with Clarke, he said.
Graul said his grandfather opened the first Graul's in east Baltimore in the 1920s, and in the 1960s had one where the Pinehurst Wine Shoppe in Bellona-Gittings is now.
"We have a history in Baltimore City that goes back years," said Graul, 49, of Ruxton. He said he worked in Graul's stores as far back as middle school.
Graul said he envisions Graul's being "a small box" in the Rotunda.
"Our tag line is, 'We'd rather be good than big,'" he said.
Now, Graul is waiting for Hekemian's decision, which is expected by the end of the year, when Hekemian hopes to pull permits for the redevelopment project..
When asked to assess his chances, Graul said, "We've gotten some positive feedback from (Hekemian), but I don't know. I think we're in the running. I'm as anxious as anybody."
Hampden Village Merchants Association President Benn Ray said he doesn't know much about Graul's.
"I think if they're a boutique grocer and they can fit in, that's great," Ray said. "We're excited that there is somebody that wants to move into that space, hopefully sooner than later."
"He's local. He's full-service. He's high-quality," Clarke said of Graul. "It may be a good fit."