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By Corrie M. Anders
Whole Foods Market introduced itself to Noe Valley this month by starting a free shuttle service that will ferry grocery shoppers to its Potrero Hill store while the defunct Bell Market is under renovation.
The once-a-week service, set to begin March 3, will operate Tuesdays from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. A 13-passenger van will make a continuous loop, picking up shoppers in front of Bell at 3950 24th Street and taking them to the Potrero Hill location at 450 Rhode Island Street.
At a public forum last month, Whole Foods executives said a second day could be added to the Tuesday schedule if there was a crush of shoppers who wanted the service.
"If demand is great, we'll be happy to revisit that," said Joe Rogoff, a regional vice president with the Texas-based grocer, known for its organic and gourmet product lines.
In addition, home delivery may be available when the 24th Street Whole Foods opens, which could be as early as Sept. 1.
"I'm not committing to it today, but [home delivery] is something that I would like to do here," Rogoff said. "We are actively looking at it in this neighborhood, and I think we probably will."
Rogoff and two other Whole Foods representatives offered a smorgasbord of information about the new store during a Feb. 18 town hall meeting at St. Philip's Church. The Noe Valley Democratic Club sponsored the event, which drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people.
The meeting came a day before the San Francisco Planning Commission unanimously approved a special permit to allow the chain to move into Bell, which closed Feb. 15 after a 40-year run. Whole Foods was scheduled to start its $5 million renovation in mid-March.
Whole Foods is renowned for its organic and preservative-free products--as well as its high prices.
"I'll say it before any of you do: 'Whole Paycheck,'" joked Rogoff, drawing hearty laughter from the crowd.
Rogoff tried to dispel worries from several questioners who feared that the store--which would be the only full-service grocery in Noe Valley--would be too costly for seniors and families on fixed incomes.
In a storewide comparison of all goods, he said Whole Foods' groceries were 25 percent less expensive than Bell's and that its standard produce was a surprising 38 percent cheaper.
"Meats were similarly priced, but the quality is completely different," he said.
Whole Foods' organic produce costs more than Bell's nonorganic produce, he said, but his store is "competitively priced" in a comparison of organic to organic produce.
"You pay for what you get," he said. "We are not going to apologize for our merchandise."
Rogoff told one questioner that Whole Foods does not plan to offer a senior discount, as Bell Market did on Tuesdays when it gave older shoppers a 5 percent price break.
However, he noted that Whole Foods operates a program that shows seniors, or anyone who is interested, how to budget-shop in the store. Customers are taken on a store tour during which employees point out products of good value and special sales promotions. They also are offered money-saving tips.
"We're going to offer those tours at any of our city stores," he said. "We'll shuttle people over there."
Smaller Delivery Trucks
Several residents expressed concern over traffic congestion and truck deliveries.
The store will keep Bell's 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. shopping hours and Bell's system of routing delivery trucks on 24th Street. However, Whole Foods plans to use smaller trucks and vans, rather than the usual tractor-trailer vehicles--and there may be fewer of them.
"We're doing a survey on the number of trucks [needed], and we can modify it a little bit," Rogoff said. "We are mindful that this is a very residential neighborhood with very narrow streets."
Because Bell's 18,000-square-foot store is smaller than Whole Foods' typical 45,000- to 50,000-square-foot markets, Rogoff said he didn't expect the 24th Street operation to be a "destination point" attracting people from outside the neighborhood.
Whole Foods already operates three other stores in the city, and potential shoppers from the Castro and Mission neighborhoods may prefer to visit a store that Whole Foods plans to open at Dolores and Market streets. The company recently signed an agreement to take over the vacant S&C Ford dealership site.
Supervisor Bevan Dufty told the audience, however, that he wasn't adverse to residents from nearby communities doing their grocery shopping in Noe Valley.
"Given how the merchants have suffered on 24th Street with Real Food's being closed," Dufty said, he didn't think it would be "awful if people come from other neighborhoods."
Dufty noted that six businesses closed in the first year after Nutraceutical Corporation abruptly shut down the Real Food Company in 2003. The store remains closed.
David and Goliath
Though Whole Foods has become hugely popular and grown to 270 stores scattered around the country since it first opened in 1980, Rogoff sought to allay fears that it might threaten smaller businesses offering similar products.
"We have found that smaller businesses most often do well when we are around," he said. "It is rare that a well-operated small business has to shut down because of Whole Foods."
Gwen Sanderson, president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association, said only one Noe Valley merchant had expressed serious concerns about competition from Whole Foods: 24th Street Cheese Company.
She said Cheese Company owner Charles Kung had been assured by Whole Foods that it would have a "very limited cheese" selection that focused on the company's own brands. The Cheese Company, which sells 300 kinds of imported and domestic cheeses, has operated at 24th and Sanchez streets for more than 30 years.
Whole Foods executives also promised to spruce up the recycling center, which will be moved from near the store's entrance to the front of the barricade while construction is under way.
The parking lot area will have a green, more aesthetically pleasing look, thanks to a $5,000 donation from the Campana family, the longtime owners of the Bell Market property.
Among other things, the money will be used to put ornamental plants in four now-barren patches of dirt in front of the parking lot, as well as small decorative trees along the sides.
Whither the Union Label?
Speakers also raised the issue of unions at Whole Foods, which currently is a non-union operation. Rogoff said the store would not stand in the way of any unionization efforts, but noted that grocery baggers just starting out earned $11.25 an hour, which he said was higher than union wages for the same job.
Michael Sharpe, president of the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union, Local 648, urged Rogoff to hire employees who had worked at the unionized Bell store--many for decades.
Rogoff said the workers would have to apply like other applicants for the 80 to 100 new positions on 24th Street. But, he said, "we're interviewing them first and separately."
As the meeting drew to a close, a young man who described himself as a "lazy vegan" asked whether the new Whole Foods was going to carry vegan products as the chain did in other locations.
"You're not as rare as you used to be," Rogoff said. "Our CEO is a vegan, so we're very aware."