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Natural Foods Merchandiser
How Elm City Market plans to thrive in a food desert

How Elm City Market plans to thrive in a food desert

Elm City Market, a co-op in New Haven, Conn., is set to open its doors Nov. 3 in a LEED Platinum–certified building. See how its general manager and natural products retail veteran, Mark Regni, is set to cater to a community in "dire need of good food."


Good food = good life
Eating is an agricultural act
A world of flavor, at your feet

These sentiments form the foundation of Elm City Market—literally. Before cement was poured at the store site last July, residents of New Haven, Conn., were invited to jot down blessings, visions and wishes for the future store on pieces of paper to be placed under the cement.

This gesture personifies two values that are highly important to the store: community and inclusion. Area residents hope that Elm City Market, which just opened its doors in October, produces a food oasis in New Haven, a widely acknowledged food desert where more than 130,000 people are served by one large, conventional grocery store.

Elm City Market signed up for a challenge other retailers declined. Three years ago, when New Haven’s largest building development in decades, 360 State Street, got approval to become a housing complex, the city imposed one caveat: A grocery store had to be part of the plan. But developers of the LEED Platinum–certified building couldn’t find a taker. Conventional chains said no. Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s turned it down. So the building’s developer, Bruce Becker, began looking at the co-op model—and the more he learned, the more he liked.

To pursue the idea, Becker asked for the help of natural products retail veteran Mark Regni, then a Whole Foods employee in Salt Lake City. “We traveled around visiting area co-ops,” Becker recalls. “We were really impressed with what we saw, especially the City Market Onion River Co-op [in Burlington, Vt.], with its 7,000 members.”

Next, Becker and the Elm City Market board of directors conducted a nationwide search for a general manager, and were delighted when Regni, who has more than 35 years in the industry, accepted the job.

So far, the community, co-op board and growing membership have been the store’s guiding forces. “We kept hearing everyone’s fears that the co-op would be too expensive and not carry a wide range of products,” says Amy Christensen-Regni, Regni’s wife and the store’s marketing manager. “When I was at Whole Foods and Wild Oats, I knew who our customer was, and it wasn’t everyone. Here, I am finding ways to be a store for everyone.”

Serving the community

Elm City Market is located in the heart of New Haven’s downtown—close to bus stops and financial institutions and about five blocks from Yale University. However, this is not exactly a flourishing area, Christensen-Regni notes. “It’s been hit hard by the economic downturn,” she says. “There are a lot of empty store fronts; New Haven has a lot of ‘haves,’ but also a lot of ‘have-nots.’”

To serve the community’s diverse needs, the store features a hybrid concept, with conventional products comprising about 15 percent of its SKUs, while the rest are natural, organic, regional or local. “Some of the feedback we’ve gotten from our 650 or so members has been to have basic groceries that people feel comfortable with,” Christensen-Regni says. “The intent is that the conventional will be the cleanest—the best of conventional.”

For lower-income shoppers, Elm City Market accepts food stamps and gives membership discounts, and will offer affordable pricing, partly due to the buying power that comes as a benefit of membership in the National Cooperative Grocers Association. “We don’t have a lot of the red tape that chains do,” Regni says. “We can deal direct, and that saves money.”

Keeping it local

Along with affordability, local is a big emphasis at the store. “We hope to always offer about 300 local and regional items,” Regni says. “I’ve personally met with about 200 growers and suppliers.” Cutting out the middleman by dealing directly with local or regional vendors will also keep prices down, he adds.

Local also plays into the store’s workforce. Regni held a three-day job fair in July to find the 100 or so employees necessary to run Elm City Market. The fair attracted about 500 job seekers, mostly from New Haven. “We intentionally didn’t advertise much; we wanted to attract locals,” Regni says.

Christensen-Regni is hoping the store’s extensive community-outreach programs will help break down stereotypes often associated with natural products stores. She says the community will be invited for frequent, fun sampling events and “edutainment.”

“We will go into schools and talk about healthy eating and introduce kids to foods they haven’t had before,” she says. A robust, free education program with beginner- and experienced-level classes about nutrition and wellness is under development.

The store also caters to university students and downtown workers with its convenience foods: A 30-foot hot bar, salad bar and full-service sandwich and burrito bars provide quick meals. “Essentially, we have everything Whole Foods does but on a smaller scale,” Regni says.

To date, Elm Street Market’s members have been very passionate and involved. Member-owner volunteers have formed an in-store sustainability team called the Green Team, and interaction on Facebook and Twitter has been strong. “New Haven is in dire need of good food,” Christensen-Regni says. “Many people here understand that we are in a food desert and welcome the store.”

Elm City Market
777 Chapel St.
New Haven, CT 06510

Store size: 22,000 square feet
SKUs: 15,000 to 20,000
Employees: 100
History: Opens Nov. 3, 2011

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