A Whole Foods Market could be opening up a few miles away, and Judy Davis could hardly be less worried.
The natural-foods store in Mount Rainier where she works has been in business for 43 years, and Davis doesn’t think the arrival of the nation’s best-known premium grocery chain would do anything to drive Glut Food Co-op from Prince George’s County.
“We have our dedicated customers that have been coming here for years,” said Davis, one of the store’s managers. “They like our prices, they like the atmosphere here, and they are going to continue to come here.”
For years, the county has been trying to lure Whole Foods — and its attendant cachet — to Prince George’s. After repeated delays, plans for the store and a surrounding development project in Riverdale Park could be approved in the coming weeks, over the objections of opponents who say it will spoil the area.
The natural-foods stores in that corner of the county say they aren’t anxious about the prospect of a Whole Foods in their midst. They say they have cultivated a special place in their communities that will keep their customers loyal. At least three organic grocery stores thrive along the Route 1 corridor, from Mount Rainier, on the border with the District, to College Park, just inside the Beltway.
Glut has made itself a gathering place where funky music is always in the background and whole grains and medical herbs are in demand. Workers greet customers by name and see them come back for the fresh produce and the expansive selection of incense. Customers, who often help bag their groceries, leave with weeks’ worth of rice, beans and nuts.
Whole Foods, with 16 stores in the Washington region, has set its sights on the area. But not everyone sees the chain as competition. Although Whole Foods has helped popularize organic foods, it sells lots of conventional products. By contrast, the smaller stores like Glut say that almost all of their products are organic.
And some of its would-be competitors say that Whole Foods would serve Prince George’s well. “There really is not an upscale grocer in the area,” said Scott Nash, owner of MOM’s Organic Market in College Park, about four miles from where the Whole Foods is planned. “Competition is to be expected, and it’s really probably good for the community. They might take a few customers, but we know that we will be fine.”
At Yes Organic Market in Hyattsville, just a mile from the proposed Whole Foods, the assistant manager, Eric Kim, said the local community has made the store — one of the chain’s seven outposts — a shopping destination since it opened less than two years ago. “Our customers really love us here in Hyattsville,” he said.
Paul Jolly, 52, of Mount Rainier is one of those loyal customers. Jolly buys most of his groceries at Yes Organic and doesn’t plan to change that.
“Whole Foods is a lot more expensive, so I am not likely to be shopping there,” he said as he headed out of the Hyattsville store with two bags of groceries. “We got lots of choices here between Glut, Yes Organic and MOM’s in College Park. There’s no need for a Whole Foods.”
Last week, the Prince George’s County Planning Board postponed until Thursday a key vote on the proposed development at Riverdale Park after reviewing key elements of the project at an eight-hour public hearing.
The Whole Foods is one piece of a $250 million project that would include 981 units of multifamily housing, a 120-room hotel, 22,000 square feet of office space and about 168,000 square feet of retail.
If the Planning Board approves the plan, the developer could break ground at the 37-acre site in August, and Whole Foods could open as soon as late 2014. The developer, the Cafritz family, has owned the Riverdale Park wooded parcel of land on Route 1 north of East-West Highway since the 1950s.
Neighbors have said they worry about the effects of adding so many residents and shoppers to an area that borders a community of single-family homes. “It is not about Whole Foods despite the efforts of many people to make it into the question of whether Whole Foods is desired or not,” said Susan Dorn, a resident of nearby University Park and one of the plan’s biggest critics.
But in a way, the project has become about Whole Foods. County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) and other local officials have touted plans for the store — which would be the county’s first Whole Foods — as evidence that Prince George’s can attract upscale retailers.
And that is important to county residents, who for decades have complained about being underserved by retail stores and restaurants.
The opening of Wegmans at the Woodmore Towne Centre at Glenarden in 2010 was celebrated as a major shift in the way retailers view the county. Before Wegmans, the county had no high-end grocers: no Whole Foods, no Harris Teeter, no Trader Joe’s.
Derick Berlage, a county planner who is overseeing a study of the food options in the county, said the traditional grocery store is struggling in the county. Several grocery stores have closed in the past few years, including two in Bowie, where residents and officials have been courting Trader Joe’s.
“There is no question that we have a challenge keeping full-service grocery stores in our neighborhoods,” Berlage said.
Outside Yes Organic in Hyattsville, shopper Robin Ankrah said she is eager for Whole Foods to open. She said she will still shop at Yes Organic because it is only six blocks from her home. But she said she will drive the mile to Whole Foods for the bigger selection of items such as cheeses and breads.
“I think (Whole Foods) is good for the county. . . . It is good for the neighborhood in general,” said Ankrah, who sometimes drives to the Whole Foods in Silver Spring.
Back at Glut, customer Woody Newman said that with increased interest in organic and healthful food, there is room for the big chain and for the smaller shops, where he said the shopping experience is more personal.
Davis, who greeted Newman by name on a recent afternoon at the store, agreed. “The way I see it is, the more places we build like this the healthier the world will be,” she said. “So spread around. We are not going out of business because of them.”