A Lost Key

There has been much written – including in the pages of this very magazine – about new supermarkets blossoming in inner-city food deserts.

Whole Foods is experimenting with inner city stores in Detroit and New Orleans, and plans to open a store in the heart of downtown Newark next year.

In January I profiled Fare & Square, a jewel-box of a little store run by a non-profit food bank in Chester, Pa., a down-at-heels suburb of Philadelphia, while in April I profiled a very successful start-up called Fields Foods in St. Louis. In our June issue we once again return to Philadelphia with my profile of ShopRite of Fox Street, which has been doing a phenomenal business of $1 million a week in sales since it opened last August in the City’s Allegheny West/Nicetown-Tioga area.

But not every inner city supermarket is a guaranteed success. Take the case of the Key Food which opened a shiny new store on Newark’s Springfield Avenue – ground zero for the 1967 riots – in February 2013. According to news reports, the grand opening was marked with music, balloons and speeches from then Newark Mayor (now U.S. Senator) Cory Booker and other city officials. Shelves were said to be stocked to the brim with groceries and shoppers were greeted with a rainbow of fruits and vegetables when they walked through the door.

But by December the doors at Key Food were padlocked for good.

“We had high expectations, but it just didn’t work out,” co-owner Ray Ahmed told reporter Barry Carter of The Star-Ledger. “The business wasn’t there.”

Ahmed attributed that to construction delays and not being able to get a license to accept food stamps from the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program. He said WIC accounted for about 15% of sales. He also attributed the store’s failure to the lack of familiarity with the Key Food banner, which is common in New York, but not New Jersey. “I guess the Key Food brand wasn’t too popular over there,” he told the newspaper.

However, customers told Carter another story, telling tales of an expensive dirty store selling rotten meat. “The smell hit you as soon as you walked through the door,” one shopper said.

“You don’t want to pay high prices for old food,” said another.

As an interesting aside, ShopRite is building a 67,000-square-foot store a little further down Springfield Avenue, closer to Downtown. Given ShopRite’s name recognition and low-price leader reputation in New Jersey, I am sure that that store will be a success. Had Key Food not closed in December, it may have very well been done in by ShopRite.

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