Healthy competition on the west side


aturday was the last day for the Safeway in Mount Clare Junction on Baltimore's southwest side. After nearly 23 years as the anchor of the urban shopping center and mall that opened with fanfare in the 1980s, the supermarket closed, citing losses in sales, a declining customer base because of stalled residential development nearby and longstanding lack of visibility from West Pratt Street due to the Junction's design.

There was another factor: frozen Thanksgiving turkeys for 28 cents a pound at the Food Depot about 20 blocks away.


That probably had a lot to do with it, too.

A column earlier this month about the Safeway and the state of urban supermarkets mentioned "competition from independent grocers" as another factor in the chain store's demise at Mount Clare. But I should have been more specific and given this factor more weight.


In fact, when you check out the whole city supermarket scene on the west side, and take a specific look at the Food Depot on Frederick Avenue, you might conclude that it was the leading factor in pushing a nearby competitor with declining profits out the door.

Food Depot is a bright and clean store in the shabby-looking West Side Shopping Center, at Frederick and Catherine Street. (Pronounced "Cather-reen" Street in Bawlmer, hon.) The store's front windows are covered with colorful, hand-painted specials: Bananas for 56 cents a pound ("Wow!"), $2.88 for a 10-pound bag of white potatoes ("Wow!"), Rich Food tuna at 68 cents a can, two cantaloupes for $3.

The store offers fresh seafood and sells steamed crabs in season. It has a large meat section with its own butchers. It has a full deli and a modest bakery that smells of cookies and bread. The rotisserie chicken is under $5 every day. I bought a dozen large eggs from Sauder's of Hampstead for $1.48.

Benjy Green, whose family has been part of the Baltimore grocery scene since 1915, says Food Depot already has tripled the sales of the store it replaced in the summer of 2008 - a Super Fresh that sold too many fancy brands of olive oil and was out of touch with its customer base.

When he talks about his 40,000-square-foot store - one of two the B. Green family operates in the city, the other being in Belair-Edison - Mr. Green emphasizes the need for grocers to understand their customers and give them what they want, priced at levels they can afford.

An independent, non-union grocer can do this while the chains, he says, have traditionally taken a one-size-fits-all approach to stocking stores and introducing specials, whether they're located in the inner city or a distant suburb.

The centralized operations of the chains, designed for efficiency, don't account for parochial tastes, though the industry's hottest trend appears to be "hyper-local" marketing.

The local independents - Eddie's, Santoni's - have been "hyper-local" all along, Mr. Green says. They have a more malleable business model and can adjust as the neighborhoods around them change. They don't have to answer to Wall Street, either.


"We have built our business on our very aggressive pricing structure," he says. "Our everyday shelf prices are well below the chains. This is almost an oxymoron in an urban environment. Usually you hear quite the opposite - that 'city' stores charge more than those in the suburbs, taking advantage of the urban customer."

"During the Thanksgiving holiday season, we sold frozen turkeys for 28 cents per pound. ... We were over $1 cheaper [than competitors] for five pounds of potatoes and no less than 50 cents per pound less for yams versus the chains. We sell our regular ground beef for $2.78 per pound, while Giant sells theirs for $3.59 and Safeway for $3.69."

Food Depot had a gallon of Rutter's milk priced at $2.98 when I was there the other day. The half-gallon I bought at Giant the night before cost me $2.19.

Several readers of my Jan. 3 column on the demise of the Mount Clare Safeway speculated that criminals and panhandlers had driven the customers away. That's the cynic's knee-jerk reaction - an understandable one - to any story about a business closing its doors in Baltimore.

But this time it looks like a key factor was the price of frozen turkeys, not shoplifters and winos, and I call that progress.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.