When Whole Foods announced, with the Daniele Family Cos., that it was planning to open a grocery store in Brighton, the plan was to open one in the Buffalo area at the same time – 2017.
Today, the Buffalo store has been open for more than a year, but Rochester’s store is still on the drawing board, stalled by lengthy reviews of the plans caused by opposition and now by a lawsuit. After eight public hearings, the town has granted its permission; demolition and building permits wait for resolution of the suit.
“If not for all the opposition and the lawsuits, Whole Foods would have been open already and Rochester would have had one more choice,” said Danny J. Daniele, co-owner and president of Daniele Family Cos. Much of the opposition focused on potential increases in traffic on an already busy Monroe Avenue.
If the Daniele Family, the project’s developers, wins its day in court, the company will demolish its former Mario’s restaurant and Clover Lanes buildings to make room for a 50,000-square-foot Whole Foods grocery store, a drive-through Starbucks and a cluster of about a dozen other businesses. The other businesses include, according to Daniele, high-end boutiques, fresh concept eateries, and pampering services. He says he can’t divulge the tenants’ names until 90 days before they take possession of the properties.
The project’s centerpiece will be the Whole Foods grocery store, an outpost of a highly regarded chain of stores that is represented in Upstate New York only in Buffalo and Albany so far. Though Wegmans Food Markets Inc. staunchly denies it, Danny Daniele insists the locally grown grocery chain is financing opposition to prevent its competitor from getting a foothold in the Rochester market. Wegmans did send a letter to the town with concerns about traffic, safety and other impacts of the proposed development.
With 21 stores in the Rochester area, Wegmans expects to pass the 100-store mark in 2019 with new stores opening in Brooklyn, Virginia Beach, Va., and Raleigh, N.C. Whole Foods, meanwhile, already has nearly 500 stores in North America and the United Kingdom.
What would Whole Foods be like? We visited the store in Buffalo recently to get an idea.
Much like the Brighton site, the Whole Foods is in an upscale suburb of Buffalo, located on the commercial strip of Amherst’s Sheridan Drive and adjacent to a residential neighborhood. The site is actually in the parking lot of what used to be a large mall, which now contains some non-retail tenants.
The 50,000-square-foot grocery store – the same size that’s proposed for Brighton – has three entrances. One leads to a vestibule for shopping carts, parked in rows in front of an Amazon locker for mail-order package pickups. The locker is 12 to 15 feet long and about 6 feet tall, providing a place for people to have packages delivered if they don’t want to risk having something snatched off their stoops.
After passing by the carts, visitors enter an attractive produce area, with vegetables and fruits neatly laid out in wooden bins. The bulk food section is immediately adjacent, with nationally known hard candies, and grind-your-own peanut butter or almond butter.
Much of what Whole Foods offers will seem familiar to Wegmans regulars – store branded items alongside national brands of groceries, prepared food bars and seating in the store where the foods can be eaten after you check out at the coffee bar. Shoppers can get help at counters for deli, bakery, sushi, and pizza, much like Wegmans. But instead of subs, this store offers ramen bowls.
A second entrance brings shoppers into the store where they have immediate access to the prepared food counters and to Bar 1818, described as offering locally sourced beer on tap, pool, burgers and shakes. A third entrance leads directly into the pub and restaurant. On a recent weekday, Bar 1818 seemed to be attracting neighboring workers on their lunch hour.
Some features that appear to be unique to Whole Foods are skylights in the exposed ceiling. The entire front of the store consists of glass windows, allowing in natural light even on a typically gray day in Western New York. There’s a bocce court at the front of the store, though no one was playing when we visited.
If Whole Foods succeeds in opening a store in Rochester, it’s likely there will be a bowling lane or two instead of a bocce court. Daniele said at Whole Foods’ request, the surfaces of two bowling lanes from Clover Lanes were reserved for the décor of the planned store.
But unless Whole Foods asks for additional permissions from the town, the proposed Rochester Whole Foods would not have any Amazon lockers (Amazon bought Whole Foods since the time the project was proposed in 2015), special features like a bocce court or a bowling lane, or an attached restaurant.
Daniele noted some differences between the planned Brighton store and the store in suburban Buffalo. The Daniele redevelopment plan is much smaller, he said: 84,000 square feet compared to a mall that once contained 250,000 square feet of retail space. And the supermarket is just a portion of the space.
“To give some perspective, the Wegmans stores are usually over 125,000 square feet, meaning you could fit two full-size Whole Foods stores inside the Pittsford Wegmans and still have room left over to squeeze a Cheesecake Factory in there,” he said.
Indeed the business models are different, with Whole Foods operating stores less than half the size of the typical Wegmans supermarket. Both chains step out of the typical grocery store model to carry clothing and equipment for practicing yoga, but Wegmans by and large has more offerings across the board and appeals to a broader range of price points.
Daniele has no timeline for the Brighton project to move forward. He said injunctions related to opposition have prevented the company from even repairing the buildings that have been closed now for two years.
“If the lawsuit disappears, we would be able to start demolition next week and construction thereafter,” Daniele said. Given the go-ahead, the project could be built in 10 to 14 months he said.
Town Supervisor William Moehle said the town loses out on several fronts as the waiting continues, from the walking trail that the developers would build as part of the incentive zoning package for the project, to the tax dollars – some $400,000 annually – created by the commerce, to new shopping available even on foot.
“I understand that people want to have the legal issues resolved before they make the investment. What that means is this enhancement to our tax base and the safety improvements and the assets of the trail are also delayed,” Moehle said.
The lengthy delay will not deter the Daniele Family Cos. from the project, Daniele said.
“Our intent is to continue forward with what we believe is a new and fresh development that would breathe some new life into this corridor,” he said.
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