Fresh Fields, an upstart health-food supermarket chain, confirmed yesterday that it plans to open its first Baltimore grocery in the Mount Washington area, offering an alternative for the organically inclined shopper.
The privately held company based in Rockville expects to open an estimated 18,000-square-foot store off Interstate 83 on Falls Road in March or April, becoming the largest tenant in a proposed retail-office complex near Roland Park.
"Since we opened the company five years ago, we've been very aggressively searching for a site in Baltimore," said Chief Operating Officer Jack Murphy. "This particular site has very good visibility and good access. I just think it's a very good opportunity to get into the Baltimore market."
Until now, Fresh Fields' closest incursion was an Annapolis store that opened in 1993.
Started in 1991 with a store in Rockville, the chain now operates 19 supermarkets, ranging in area from 18,000 to 25,000 in square feet, in Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Illinois. The company expects to have 22 supermarkets by year's end.
The arrival of Fresh Fields, backed by New York investment bank Goldman Sachs, Washington investment bank Carlyle Group and Baltimore-based mutual fund company T. Rowe Price Associates Inc., could pinch smaller natural food stores. But analysts say it's too early to tell whether the retailer could chip into Giant Food Inc.'s dominance.
"They're still in the fledgling stage, and they're still gaining economies of scale in order to be a long-term profitable company. They're building toward that," said Jeff Metzger, publisher of Food World, a Columbia-based regional supermarket trade publication. "But from an operational point of view, they're a quality retailer, they run what I consider excellent stores."
Giant Food isn't taking anything for granted, even though it operates 164 stores in Virginia, Washington, Delaware and Maryland, including about 60 stores in the Baltimore metropolitan area.
"We look at anyone as a competitor, whether it's a full-service food store or a convenience store," said Barry F. Scher, Giant's vice president of public affairs. "And we'll do whatever we can to remain competitive and continue to do what we do best, and that's providing a lot of service and special merchandising programs."
Like Giant, Fresh Foods offers a full-range of groceries. But what distinguishes it from traditional supermarkets is the chain's emphasis on organic produce, no-hormone beef and similar products.
According to a Food World study, Fresh Fields generated $97.5 million in sales from six stores in Washington, one in Annapolis and another in Charlottesville, Va., for the year ended March 31.