Produce Galore calling it quits in Columbia

The Baltimore Sun

For more than 30 years, Kent Pendleton started his 18-hour workday by waking at 2 a.m. and trekking to produce vendors to buy fresh fruits and vegetables he could sell at his specialty store in Howard County.

His store, Produce Galore, became a landmark in downtown Columbia, outgrowing its original space in Wilde Lake Village Center and eventually offering gourmet foods, a salad bar and a deli.

"This is food you can't get anywhere else," said Karen Brewer, a customer who lives in Ellicott City.

But this week, Pendleton quit making his early-morning trips. Faced with the influx of competition from bigger, out-of-town food and grocery retailers, Pendleton and his wife, Margaret, notified customers yesterday of their decision to shut down the store they opened in 1976 in Columbia's first village center. The word went out via e-mail that the store's last day is Friday.

"Pretty much almost all of the friends that I have now I've gotten through this business," Margaret Pendleton said yesterday, as tears welled in her eyes while longtime customers descended on the store after hearing the news.

It is the latest family-run business to fall victim to tough competition in the James W. Rouse-planned community. The closing comes two months after Bun Penny closed its store at The Mall in Columbia. That gourmet food, deli and coffee shop had been a local institution for more than 36 years.

New grocery competition has arrived recently in Columbia, and more is on the way. Trader Joe's recently opened a few miles away in the new Gateway Overlook shopping center. A Harris Teeter is slated to open in Kings Contrivance in May, and a 160,000-square-foot Wegmans is planned in east Columbia. As proposed, the Wegmans store would be two stories and nearly triple the size of most area supermarkets.

Said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, "I think it's just so sad. I can't help but believe that with support from the local government, we could prevent something like this. There must be something we can do to help family businesses that give such a unique, personal service to our community."

Alan Klein, a spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, noted that although the e-mail from Produce Galore said big-box stores are "surrounding" Columbia, those large stores are "in" Columbia, he said.

"[Rouse Co. and General Growth Properties], our planners and our elected officials have consistently let us down over the past several years and have allowed sprawl to take place within the bounds of Columbia, rather than creating and adhering to a meaningful plan," he said.

Yesterday, the Pendletons stood together and looked out over their store. They thought of the couple of thousand employees who have worked there over the years. They watched customers browse the shelves, some for the last time. Without the financial means to retire, they pondered what they will do next.

"When you get letters from customers, how much it meant to them to have someone take care of them, it's something you want to continue," Margaret Pendleton said. "In money, it may not be a successful business. But it certainly has enriched our lives."

Margaret was responsible for all of the recipes. She made five soups daily and managed the gourmet food.

Produce Galore struck a chord with customers. The stored earned "best salad bar" awards from magazines in Baltimore and Columbia.

"I just think the food is better quality, if you want to eat healthy," customer Sheanea Powell said yesterday as she made lunch at the salad bar.

But in September 2006, business declined when the village center's anchor, a Giant supermarket, closed. The Pendletons relied on the Giant to bring customers into the village center, and when it folded, they began to wonder how long Produce Galore could survive.

They considered changing their shop to a convenience store but decided to focus on what they do best.

In the end it was not enough.

"I just don't know what I'm going to do now," said Brewer, the customer from Ellicott City. "I'm kind of at a loss."

june.arney@baltsun.com matt.simon@baltsun.com

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