Chow Bella

Urban Grocery Space May Have Bright (Green) Future

It's been nearly a week since news broke that the Urban Grocery will be closing Saturday, May 12, at 5 p.m. Now that the dust has settled and tempers have cooled, it's easier to see why. And why it's highly unlikely -- despite all petitions, protests, and the creation of a "save the market" Facebook page -- that the grocery will re-open in its current form.

Bottom line: The concept just wasn't feasible -- not for this part of Phoenix, not at this time. The space was small, the selection even smaller, and by necessity (no way to buy in bulk, which is cheaper) the prices were high. But that doesn't mean there aren't high hopes and exciting ideas for what to do with the space next.

"It's been a struggle since Day One," acknowledges Dan Klocke, board president of Community Food Connections (the nonprofit that oversees both the grocery and the Downtown Phoenix Public Market). Klocke explains that despite having an extremely tolerant landlord (who waived rent) and getting tons of support from the city, the grocery simply didn't have enough customers.

It's the same conclusion CFC founder and former executive director Cindy Gentry (who resigned last week) has also reached. "There's not enough density downtown," she says, adding that in an economic downturn, consumers must make "hard choices" about buying food. For many customers, organic produce, grass-fed beef and artisanal crackers aren't an option.

And then there's the fact that the bulk of the folks who've moved downtown in recent years have been cash-strapped college students, hardly the grocery's target demographic.

So what will become of the charming historic grocery space, which just happens to be parked right next to one of the most popular outdoor farmers markets in town?

Rumors have been flying, and Chow Bella's heard a couple of interesting suggestions. One was that ASU had plans (possibly diabolical) for the space. And, really, is that so far-fetched, given the school's proclivity for snatching up empty buildings while the bodies are still warm? Turns out that one's just a rumor. For now, anyway.

Another? A restaurant.

Considering all we've parsed together about why the grocery may have failed (including operational decisions strangled by a slow-to-act board), resurrecting another market -- no matter how modified the business model -- probably doesn't make sense for now. This one doesn't seem likely.

But what might work really well is a restaurant devoted to local ingredients. And there have been rumors of local chefs (no one's said who) already sniffing around for precisely that reason. Sounds pretty cool: historic building, partnership with a thriving farmers market and a rudimentary kitchen already in place.

Klocke doesn't know for sure what landlord Kurt Schneider might be planning, but he does know that this guy -- an avid supporter of Central Avenue projects and a true believer in farmer's markets -- really gets it. "He's been amazing," Klocke says. "He's going to find somebody that buys local. He's going to do everything he can to get somebody who supports the market."

We're hoping to track Schneider down and ask him about it in the coming days.

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Nikki Buchanan