New York U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand will announce new legislation to expand markets for farmers and increase the availability of locally-grown food at an event scheduled for this afternoon. The venue for her announcement is the latest addition to the ever-expanding landscape of grocery retailers in New York’s Capital Region. The store is adding a new dimension to the competition for customers by focusing on local and all-natural foods, as WAMC’s Hannah Rank reports.
Burlington, Vt.-based Healthy Living Market and Café opened its second location in the Saratoga Springs community last month, which is a welcomed addition for many local residents awaiting a steadier and larger supply of organic food options.
This storefront will be the largest majority locally sourced and natural food market the immediate area has seen. Located in the Wilton Mall, the market boasts parking and space comparable to most larger Hannaford and Price Chopper locations in the area.
Although natural and artisanal food retailers do exist in Saratoga Springs, Healthy Living surpasses them both in scale and services offered.
It may seem that this new, larger store will compete with already existing, much smaller natural food stores in the city, such as Four Seasons, located in the heart of downtown. However, general manager Lyndsay Meilleur says that she feels certain there is a place for everyone, especially considering her store’s distinct location.
“I think there’s space for both of us—people who are shopping who might go to Four Seasons are going for a reason and they have that loyalty to Four Seasons,” she says.
Yet Tim Sperry, president and owner of the Sperry Group, a grocery consulting firm based in Wellesley, Mass., has a less optimistic view of how Healthy Living will fit competitively with other smaller vendors in the area.
“I think it will definitely challenge the smaller venders more than it’s going to challenge the big guys,” he says.
However, when considering the unique makeup of commerce in the city, with concentrations both in the downtown area—with its main thoroughfare, Broadway—and also on the more suburban Wilton side of Route 50, Sperry does see the potential for different customer bases to form, all ultimately taking away from the Price Chopper and Hannaford base.
But are stores such as Price Chopper and Hannaford getting pushed out in any serious way by larger natural foods stores such as Healthy Living?
Sperry’s short answer is no, mainly due to the fact that the competitive pricing of bigger stores still blows smaller chains selling more expensive products out of the water. But he does admit that the two types of stores are starting to share the same marketplace, and that Healthy Living’s organic and natural food selection will appeal to customers unsatisfied with the limited range of products offered by larger chains:
“Consumers are going to be tired of only being able to get a few items at Hannaford and Price Chopper and they’re going to be excited because Healthy Living is going to give them a much bigger array," he says. "They’re probably going to have more organic produce, they’re going to have more organic and natural prepared foods offerings and things like that. So in that respect, yeah, they’re going to take a little bit of business away from Hannaford and Price Chopper.”
The grocery market has gotten crowded in the Capital Region in recent years, with Trader Joe’s, ShopRite, and even Whole Foods opening stores, in addition to places like Wal-Mart and Target expanding grocery operations.
Beyond just grocery merchandise, though, Meilleur argues that Healthy Living is selling a certain lifestyle in the initiatives it pushes and services it offers, as it strives both to provide a space to support local events and to promote healthy eating by teaching classes that demonstrate cooking healthfully with ease.
Healthy Living chef-instructor Shannon Beckwith teaches young shoppers how to prepare vegetarian spring rolls.
Beckwith runs the store’s Learning Center, which exemplifies two of the store’s main goals: community involvement and promoting healthful eating. The overall mission of the store in one phrase, according to Meilleur, would be: “Eat good food.” But she does note more specifically the five main aims of Healthy Living:
“To our customers, to our staff, to one another just as human beings to take care of each other, to our community, and then to providing a sound business to the community in which we can support local farms and local vendors,” she says.
Healthy Living has also promoted economic growth in Saratoga. In February, the store held a job fair that brought in over 200 applicants and around 40 hires.
The cheese monger for Healthy Living, Jon Milks—and yes, that’s his real name—has been working in dairy his entire life. As he fed me flakes of the 66 pound round of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese he had just cracked open, he told me about his passion for cheese and his reasons for seeking a job at the new store.
“Well I think that our offering—we’re doing so much more with local than anybody else in the area, except for the co-ops," he says. "So it’s kind of unique and I think that our customer base is looking for the local product, locally sourced cheese. And I carry a lot of Vermont product also and European, but I’m also really trying to bring in more of a local—reduce that footprint on the distance that the food is coming from.”
For people like Milks who might be looking for new prospects and who, like Milks, have a passion for local ingredients, or even might just be looking for a lifestyle change that reflects in their occupation, the store provides an exciting new work opportunity.
“We employ a number of individuals who are trying to make a strong lifestyle change and the fact that they’re here because of that, completely makes this all worth it,” she says.
As Meilleur emphasizes, Healthy Living delivers more than just groceries. And people are responding to this move toward a community-rooted store. The fact is, stores like this that offer higher quality, consciously and locally-sourced products and, because of that, have a community focus, are becoming more and more prevalent in cities like Saratoga Springs and Burlington.
Natural and organic foods have made a resurgence in the mainstream food system, as more consumers appear willing to question the provenance of their food—and pay more for ensuring its quality.
“More mainstream consumers purchase those kinds of foods," Sperry says, "so they’re not as strange looking as they were when I first started in the industry 30 years ago."
Eating natural really isn't considered unnatural anymore.
WAMC news intern Hannah Rank is currently a senior at Skidmore College majoring in anthropology. She is hoping to pursue a career in radio journalism.