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Devoured by Giants

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15, 2008

Kent Pendleton opened Produce Galore in 1976 with $1,000 won on a lottery ticket and turned the small gourmet grocery store into a fixture of the progressive town of Columbia. Customers raved about the homemade West African peanut soup, shared their family recipes and found good conversation alongside the plantains.

Thirty-two years later, Pendleton's luck has finally run out. Produce Galore shut its doors yesterday, caught in the crosshairs of the region's brutal supermarket wars.

"I can't believe it. I'm so upset. Everybody is," said Starr Sowers, who lives in Columbia and has been a customer for 30 years. She leaned in to give Pendleton and his wife and business partner, Margaret, a hug. "We are going to miss you so much," she told them.

Dozens of other longtime customers dropped in last week to say goodbye. The Pendletons told them they were too tired to keep fighting . Sales have fallen off in recent years as the neighborhood that developer James Rouse envisioned as a racially and economically mixed suburban utopia became like other suburban areas, complete with McMansions.

Now, the growth that has turned Howard County into one of the wealthiest counties in the country has caught the eye of national retailers. The first Costco in the county opened in October. The first Trader Joe's opened in the same shopping center a month later. The first Harris Teeter is slated to open this year, and Wegmans has won approval for a store in Howard. Produce Galore simply found itself in the way.

"Finally, you have to say, 'Okay, we have to do this,' " Pendleton said, referring to closing. He was sitting at a small table in the middle of store, amid depleted shelves that would never be restocked. "You do what you've been putting off for such a long time."

The story is a familiar one for small grocers, which the industry defines as those with 10 stores or less. Their share of the market has been eroding for years, according to trade publication Progressive Grocer. As of December 2007, there were 34,967 supermarkets in the country. Small independents accounted for 18 percent of that number, with 6,330 stores. With sales of $32.2 billion, their market share was less than 6 percent.

"It's a challenging world for the little guy," said Jeffrey Metzger, publisher of local trade magazine Food World. "He can exist, but he better come armed."

Pendleton grew up near Olney and was working at a produce market in Northeast Washington in the 1970s when he decided to strike out on his own. With the help of his brother, Jay, and the lucky lottery ticket, he built Produce Galore in a shopping center not far from his home.

The store opened on July 3, 1976, and quickly carved out a niche selling such exotic produce as bok choy at a time when competitors stocked only iceberg lettuce and cabbage. Pendleton carried basil, cilantro, watercress, ginger, fresh mushrooms and horseradish. The worldly professionals that populated Columbia literally ate it up.

"We thought, well, we had a chance here," Pendleton said.

In the 1980s, Produce Galore added stores in Laurel and Columbia. But Pendleton never harbored grand ambitions, and the business became too large to manage. He closed the second store in Columbia and sold the Laurel location to one of his employees so he could focus on the original site. That store hit its peak in about 2000, bringing in about $3.5 million.

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