Our Daily Bread

Even Without a Publix, East-Side Grocery Shoppers Still Have Plenty of Options

It’s Saturday morning, one of the busiest times of the week for grocery stores, and a splendid cross-section of East Nashville is on display: the health-conscious young mother wrangling children and organic produce into an overflowing cart; the hipster listlessly swinging his basket, filled with just enough food to keep from starving; the grandparents who look like they are getting ready to host the motherof- all family reunions, dragging two carts packed with meat, buns, chips and cases upon cases of Big K cola.
     Welcome to Eastland Kroger, the well-worn bastion of food in the heart of neighborhood.
     Often treated with no more respect than threeday- old meatloaf, the Eastland Kroger suffers much ridicule from its neighbors, especially on the infamous East Nashville listerv. Over the last few years, the message board has been an incubator for spirited discussions and virtual shouting matches over grocery store options in the neighborhood. It’s where people go to swear off Kroger forever, or defend its honor, or clue in others to the Asian food market on Gallatin Road. It’s where people passionately argue whether or not you live in a food desert. It’s also where people go to garner support for the shiny, happy new store du jour, perhaps a Publix, that beacon of hope for foodies everywhere.
      Eastwood Neighbors neighborhood association president Brett Withers scratches his head when he ponders why the grocery store debate always seems to boil down to Eastland Kroger versus Publix. “I find this fixation interesting,” he says with a laugh. Withers, who lives within walking distance of the erstwhile site Publix had targeted — on Gallatin Road between Greenwood and Sharpe, is a regular Eastland Kroger shopper. “It meets my needs,” he says.
     But for those dissatisfied with the big box grocery options in the neighborhood, he sagely points out that “if you’re creative you might be able to find what you’re looking for in the neighborhood rather than going to a larger store across town.”
     And if you step out from behind the listserv screen for a moment, you can see for yourself that the grocery options and food purveyors in the neighborhood are as diverse as the people who live here.

Take it to the manager
     The Eastland Kroger, warts and all, is the default go-to for many in the neighborhood. It offers a respectable selection of food staples, including nearly an entire aisle of packaged organic products. When compared to the Publix, yes, the store clearly falls short. But compare it to, for example, the Piggly Wiggly/CB/H.G. Hill market on Riverside Drive, and it looks like an oasis in the proverbial food desert. But it’s got some issues, ones that even store manager Eddie Ward acknowledges. “I know our reputation is not the best,” the impeccably polite and eager-to-please Ward says. “I know we have some opportunities here —especially in the perishable department.”
     Since Ward moved over to the Eastland Kroger from the now-shuttered Dickerson Road location six months ago, he has made some concrete and noticeable changes. When he arrived, there was no designated produce manager; now there is. He also has a new assistant manager in the meat department and is confident with his team of employees.
     The store recently installed bike racks at customers’ request, and is working hard to keep the store, even the bathrooms, cleaner.
     The biggest complaint Ward hears from customers is that the store doesn’t carry particular specialty items. “We’ve pretty much maxed out the space we have in these four walls,” Ward says of the store, which is one of the smallest Krogers in Nashville. If you ask nicely though, Ward will order your favorite, hard-to-find item by the case load. “I do special orders for several customers,” he says.
     Ward stands ready to listen to customers and encourages feedback. “I’m usually here and I’ll listen to any and all suggestions,” he says. Of course it’s not up to the manager to order up an entire store makeover or expansion, but he can pass that desire along to his corporate superiors.

Publix speculation persists
     Even with Ward’s admirable efforts, the store cannot transform overnight from an aging, urban supermarket into a serene, suburban shopping experience. Eastland Kroger shoppers must remain evervigilant about checking the expiration dates on all dairy and meat products. And they must look elsewhere if they’re seeking some better mood lighting.
     Inglewood resident Danielle Romero, for one, willingly treks to another part of town every week to do her grocery shopping. The Publix in Goodlettsville is her choice, and although “it’s not close, it’s worth it to me,” she says. “It’s so immaculate, clean and friendly.”
     Romero, like many East Nashville residents, was disappointed when Publix yanked its plans for a neighborhood store. The Publix saga included much back and forth between neighborhood activists, members of the Metro Planning Department, real estate developers and Publix officials. In the end, a possible Publix location on Gallatin Road fell through without a definitive explanation, leaving the neighborhood to wonder exactly why.
     “There has been much speculation by many people, ranging from insufficient demographics to support the store to the Gallatin Road SP zoning,” says Chad Grout, a commercial real estate agent. One of Grout’s clients is H.G. Hill Realty, the owner of the property that was being considered by Publix, but he did not represent them during any of their conversations with the Florida-based supermarket chain. “No reason was given to H.G. Hill Realty by Publix as to why they didn’t want to proceed, so unfortunately the neighborhood doesn’t get the answer everyone seems to be looking for.”
     Whether it was zoning issues, insufficient demographics or a combination of these and other factors that ultimately led to the demise of the Publix bid, there will likely continue to be East Nashvillians clamoring for a more upscale grocery in the neighborhood into the future.
     Other local residents are perfectly content with the available options and dismiss the Publix effort as an unnecessary sideshow. “Does East Nashville need a Publix?” asks neighborhood resident Sara Perry, a frequent listserv contributor. “Absolutely not. The options in this neighborhood are staggering when one considers how much poverty still exists here. There are a lot more people in East Nashville who would be excited about a new Save-A-Lot, but they don’t read the listserv.
      She has a point. Along a two-mile stretch of Gallatin Road, there are four major grocery stores, including two Krogers, a Walmart Neighborhood Market, and the Aldi. With its recent facelift which added a new sushi bar and a much-expanded organic section, the Inglewood Kroger, especially, is looking quite spiffy these days.
     There are two other stores in the neighborhood worth noting: The Turnip Truck in the Five Points area and the Madison-Inglewood Market on Gallatin Road just before the intersection with Briley Parkway. The neighborhood’s natural foods market, The Turnip Truck carries at least some of the specialty items absent from the shelves of the larger stores, as well as organic produce and fresh-made deli items, bread and soups. The unassuming exterior of the Madison-Inglewood Market offers no clue to the store’s eclectic offerings, which include bulk Blue Mountain coffee, bulk nuts and one of the best selections of fresh peppers in Nashville.

Food deserts
     Just a few miles away from all these stores, however, sits a boarded-up CB market, the latest bricks-and-mortar grocery to pull out of the Shelby Avenue location across the street from the James Cayce Homes. The residents of this pocket of the neighborhood, which could rightly be called a “food desert,” are the ones that should be demanding a decent grocery store. The problem is many of them simply aren’t.
     The Nashville Mobile Market, an entrepreneurial venture launched last year by Vanderbilt University medical students to bring wholesome food into areas of the city with little or no access to fresh, healthy food, has stepped in to fill the void.
     “We don’t go to any location that hasn’t been designated as a food desert,” Nashville Mobile Market spokeswoman Ashley Kimery says. A “food desert,” a relatively new, and somewhat controversial, term, is defined by NMM as “a district with little or no access to foods needed to maintain a healthy diet.” In an urban food desert like the Cayce Homes, the area is generally densely populated, but residents lack access to healthy food because of financial and/ or transportation constraints.
     The Nashville Mobile Market seeks to eliminate barriers by bringing the grocery store to the customer. “We try to be as much like a normal grocery as possible,” says Jake Martin, NMM’s finance director who was manning the trailer parked in the Martha O’Bryan Center on a recent Saturday afternoon. The most common food staples like bread, milk, canned vegetables, apples and sweet potatoes are on display with both NMM prices and Kroger prices displayed so customers can feel they are getting a fair deal. The Nashville Mobile Market accepts all forms of payment, including food stamps.
     As Martin and his NMM coworkers stand in front of their mobile grocery and watch more than a few potential customers walk right past them, it is disappointing. They really want people to want this. They want there to be a line out the door.
      But for the first half of the NMM two-hour shift, not a single customer makes a purchase. One young boy rides his bicycle into the trailer, asks how much two bananas cost, more out of curiosity it seems than actual interest in the fruit, then turns around and rides away.
     No matter. All hope is not lost on this venture, just temporarily deflated. The boy saw the food that was offered, joked around with the NMM team, and for today, maybe that is enough. “We’re always trying to build trust with our customers,” Martin explains.
     The Martha O’Bryan Center is one of the newest stops for the Mobile Market. It has only been there through the late fall and winter months, so organizers are optimistic that more customers will emerge in the spring and summer. All potential NMM stops need at least 50 signatures from community members before they will become part of the route, and Martha O’Bryan fulfilled that requirement, says Kimery. “We definitely don’t want to remove ourselves without trying a lot of options,” she says. There is another NMM stop close by at the Edgefield Manor apartment building on Shelby. This location, which includes many senior citizens living on a fixed income, has been operating longer and has built up a stronger customer base, Kimery adds.

Niche markets
     For discriminating shoppers with a little extra disposable income, the options are more plentiful.
     Porter Road Butcher, a new boutique meat purveyor on Gallatin Road, and Eat Well Market, a new shop on Riverside Drive offering take-away meals and garden-fresh produce, are hoping to take advantage of the neighborhood’s hunger for highquality food products.
     Porter Road Butcher co-owners Chris Carter and James Piesker are doing their part to reverse the trend of the I-want-everything-in-one-place-rightnow mentality. “Why not bring it back to where it used to be — the bakery, the butcher shop, the fish monger,” Piesker says. His take on all this Publix chatter? “Publix is just a cleaner Kroger, there’s no difference. It still serves industrial meat, even if they put a butcher behind the counter.”
     Porter Road Butcher certainly does not serve “industrial meat.” Piesker and Carter use only animals raised on nearby farms they have visited personally. “We don’t require our farmers to have any special certification,” Piesker says. “We know it’s good — we’ve seen it with our own eyes.”
     The duo also visits the slaughterhouses where the animals are killed; they do the rest of the processing in their shop. “Most people don’t want to do that,” Piesker says, an understatement if there ever was one. “But we’ve done it and you can trust us.”
     With all this careful consideration given to the animals, which are treated like animals from start to finish, not merely like a commodity, Porter Road Butcher’s prices are higher than Kroger. But not shockingly so. Whole chickens are $4.50 a pound and most in-house-made sausages are $9 a pound. “We can stay competitive because we utilize the whole, entire animal,” Piesker says.
     The Porter Road Butcher shop also houses the Bloomy Rind artisanal cheese shop. Eggs and milk, as well as a few prepared foods, are also available.
     Meanwhile, across the neighborhood, Cristy Powell is busy transforming the former location of the Foxy Baking Company and D’s Q into her dream shop — Eat Well Market. Powell, who works as a caterer and event planner, and occasionally as a personal chef, is ready to bring her brand of healthy, thrifty, comforting food to the masses. Like the Porter Road butchers, she sees her shop as “limited, in the way an old fashioned mercantile is limited — you can’t get everything every time,” she says. Granted, her space is tiny, so selection is limited. But when the weather really warms up, she foresees bins of garden fresh produce and outdoor tables beckoning to people cruising down Riverside Drive.
     Powell, who grew up in her family’s Cajun restaurant in Louisiana, plans to offer chef-made entrees like red beans and rice that will feed a family of four for $10. Her motivation is simple. “I think people should be able to eat well and affordably,” she says.
     Whenever possible, Powell will use local and organic ingredients, and says her low overhead and commitment to using vendors from all over Tennessee without a middleman will help keep prices low. She believes the big box grocery model is inefficient and requires a markup that her customers won’t see. “It pains me to pay those premiums for inferior food,” she says.

‘Starting fires’ on Gallatin Road
     That “inferior food” might quickly be remedied if there was a new kid on the block, speculates District 7 Councilman Anthony Davis. Davis is quick to praise the “top notch” Inglewood Kroger, but is confident that if a new Publix or equivalent grocery store opened in East Nashville, “it would spur the Eastland Kroger to remodel and step it up.”
     Davis, who owns a small graphic design firm located on Gallatin Road, is very interested in stepping up the redevelopment of this neighborhood thoroughfare. He and his fellow East-side council representatives, Peter Westerholm from District 6 and Scott Davis from District 5, are all interested in “starting fires” of development along Gallatin Road. A major new grocery is not the only thing that would do that, but it’s a natural magnet for other small business development, he says.
     According to Davis, residents of East Nashville have long known that the neighborhood is a great place to do business, but for outside corporations “who rely primarily on census data and demographics, to entice them to come over here and invest, takes a little more work.” But, he adds, he and the other East Nashville council members are all ready to “work hard and share the story of East Nashville and get people to buy into it.”
     With a new Publix store in the works for Donelson, and possibly for Music Row, talks of an Eastside location are off the table for the moment, but rumors will continue to pop up as long as the desire for another grocery option remains.
     East Nashville resident and food blogger Debbie Barnett is one of those holding out hope for her favorite store to open in East Nashville. She regularly drives to the Nashville West Publix store, but says, she would really rather see a Trader Joe’s in the neighborhood. “I love the idea of a TJ’s in East Nashville,” she says. Not only will all the nutty-crunchy folk love their selection, but some of our low-income neighbors would be able to afford some healthy, organic options — possibly for the first time.”
     Hmmm. So, maybe Trader Joe’s is the perfect fit for the neighborhood? Let the debate continue.