We're all a bunch of crybabies. Ukrop's left and we wailed about the Ukropalypse. A part of Richmond died, we said, and it was kind of galling that this family, this group of Richmonders we depended upon so very much, had abandoned us and callously accepted cold cash in exchange for what we saw as a load-bearing wall in the house that is Richmond, Va.
Not that we didn't shop at Wal-Mart and Target. We shopped there for the basics because Ukrop's was "too expensive." Sometimes we ended up doing our grocery shopping on Sundays because we happened to stop by Kroger to buy a six-pack or a bottle of wine. But our go-to was always Ukrop's, and we always came back. Richmond natives began life being pushed around in a Ukrop's grocery cart, and when the company was sold to Ahold, we resented the fact that we wouldn't be able to push those carts ourselves anymore.
And when Martin's Food Markets installed their new signs, we didn't bemoan the fact that a large corporation bought out a smaller local business — the grief was personal, a kind of immediate nostalgia for what we'd lost. We shopped at Ukrop's because we loved their birthday cakes or their White House rolls or just because we always had. Even those of us who proselytized about the value of shopping locally often overlooked the fact that Ukrop's had been a profoundly local company — a company that treated its employees fairly and gave back enormously to the larger Richmond community.
I tell this story a lot, but it's worth repeating: I once sent Bobby Ukrop a letter complaining about something that had happened to me in one of their stores, and he not only called me to apologize, he gave me his cell phone number in order for me to let him know if I experienced the same problem again. I wasn't a food writer then, just a stay-at-home mom (who was really irate about the deli-counter service), and he wanted to make sure I was a happy customer. That's astounding to me still. And I know it'll never happen again — anywhere. Times have changed.
Now the longing for the old days (last year) has reconfigured itself. And there's a different target: A large corporation is proposing to bring in yet another grocery store to occupy the Verizon building at the edge of Carytown. Everyone seems to be furious about it.
Jason Guard provided laser-sharp criticism on his blog, Caramelized Opinions — not of the entry of a large corporation into the Carytown area — but of our own hypocrisy. Kroger is an enormous corporation, as is Ahold, he pointed out. Walgreens built a store at the corner of Ellwood and Thompson without anyone making a peep. There's a Starbucks, a Wachovia bank, a SunTrust bank and a McDonald's. For crying out loud, CVS/pharmacy, until just recently, had two stores right across the street from each other.
Other than the utter ridiculousness of a fourth grocery store planting a flag right next to three others, the outrage seems a little late in coming. (A Fresh Market spokeswoman declined to comment on the company's interest in Carytown.)
I don't have a problem with the Ukrop family selling their company. They've given back so much to the community, we ought to be thanking them and wishing them well in their future endeavors. Fresh Market, the supposedly evil interloper, has its charms, and I'll be happy that my favorite Italian butter won't be far away if their plans go through for the new store. It should be noted that Kroger is in the midst of an expansion into the old SunTrust and CVS sites (including plans for a café and drive-through pharmacy), and that should leave the chain's Carytown store positioned well. I'm not particularly worried about Ellwood Thompson's Local Market either.
Because that's what's really behind all of the hue and cry, isn't it? Everyone is worried that the one truly local grocer will get its house blown down by the big, bad big-box store. It's possible, of course.
However, ET survived the aggressive expansion of Ukrop's into the organic market. It survived despite the competition that Kroger's extensive wine inventory brought to the area when it first opened. It even opened a coffee shop that seems to be smacking down Starbucks across the street. In addition, they expanded the seating and prepared-food offerings to keep up with the competition, and although I don't doubt that Ellwood Thompson's margins are razor-thin in this economy, they seem to be up to the challenge.
But I'm speculating. And so is everyone else. The only company that might stumble is the one who fails to up its game. Fresh Market really doesn't have that much organic produce (there's a surprising amount of conventional produce mixed in), but it has a great butchery counter and some niche products I like. It doesn't pretend to stock staples, and the wine selection is small. In fact, it really isn't much of a wolf — it's more like a pig with a bad attitude.
So maybe it's time to blow away a little of the straw so that the bricks that need rearranging can be seen more clearly. We're a loyal bunch here in Richmond, but love is free. Here's hoping the lesson we learned when we lost our last local store won't be forgotten — our dollars are much more effective than outrage.