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By Corrie M. Anders
It's official. Whole Foods Market, which specializes in natural and organic food products, has announced that it will open a new store next year at the Bell Market location on 24th Street.
The news ends three years of rumors, speculation, and educated guesses over what might replace Bell Market, a neighborhood institution set to go out of business when its lease expires in February.
Whole Foods says it plans to shutter Bell when it takes over the site, so that it can do extensive renovations. The store, at 3950 24th Street between Noe and Sanchez streets, would be closed for remodeling for at least six months, perhaps longer.
Whole Foods spokeswoman Vanessa Cornish said in October that the supermarket retailer was drafting construction documents to get the renovations rolling.
She said Whole Foods also was "meeting with city officials to discuss the best way to approach the development process, so that we can secure building permits and move forward with the remodel process in a timely manner....
"We hope to start construction once building permits are approved," she said. "We anticipate opening in late 2009, assuming the development process is straightforward."
The nation's sour economy, which has crimped the construction and expansion plans of many developers and retailers, has not affected Whole Foods' plans for Noe Valley, according to Cornish.
"No, we're moving forward," she said.
The Noe Valley addition would be the chain's fifth store in San Francisco. Right now the company operates groceries in Pacific Heights, on Potrero Hill, and in the South of Market area. (City officials currently are reviewing Whole Foods' plans to build a new store on Stanyan Street in the Haight, on the site of a former Cala grocery there.)
Whole Foods, an Austin, Tex.-based retailer, has honed a reputation as an upscale grocery offering gourmet, if expensive products. Some shoppers refer to the store kiddingly as "Whole Paycheck."
Cornish said executives in the firm's Northern California regional headquarters are working on conceptual plans for the 13,000-square-foot Bell site.
However, "it's too soon to tell what the final design will be," said Cornish. "We have a 'first pass' sketch at this point."
The store will probably have a butcher to cut and trim meats, a fishmonger, a bakery, a team of chefs preparing takeout meals, and an emphasis on straight-from-the-farm produce, she said.
"The main thing is we try and bring in as much local products as possible."
At some of its 21 locations in the Bay Area, Whole Foods has set up mini farmers' markets in parking lots. That's not likely to happen at the 24th Street site--both because of the facility's small parking lot and because Whole Foods does not intend to compete with the Noe Valley Farmers' Market, Cornish said. The weekly Saturday-morning event, where vendors sell organic fruits and vegetables, has been a fixture on 24th near Vicksburg since the Real Food Company closed its doors five years ago.
Cornish said Whole Foods does, however, envision using "local foragers," who will "go out to local fields and bring their products into the store." The store may also "bring in local farmers to give samples of their products.
"While conventional supermarkets take a 'cookie-cutter' approach to their stores, this Whole Foods Market store will be customized with products and services most in demand by the Noe Valley community," Cornish said.
When Whole Foods shuts Bell down, the closest supermarkets to Noe Valley will be Delano's (formerly Cala) in the Castro District, Mollie Stone's Tower Market on Portola, and two Safeway stores, one on Diamond Heights Boulevard and the other on Mission near 29th Street. Bi-Rite Market on 18th and Good Life Grocery on Cortland provide options in the mid-size range.
For less extensive shopping, residents can buy goods at a variety of corner stores--such as Church Street Produce, Shufat's, or Angel's Deli--or at the weekly Farmers' Market.
Bell Market has been serving local shoppers ever since Dominick Bell and two brothers founded the grocery after World War II and expanded into Noe Valley in 1968.
The store has changed hands several times. Ralphs, a Southern California chain owned by food giant Kroger Co., currently runs the 24th Street operation.