By Kevin Kelley
Parking spots were hard to come by in front of Earth Fare, the new grocery store at Westgate shopping center that opened its doors to shoppers last week. Inside, the isles were jammed with customers and their carts.
Jack Murphy, the company’s CEO, who was on hand for the Dec. 7 grand opening, said he was impressed by the opening-day crowd.
“Today’s opening was probably one of the strongest, if not the strongest, we’ve ever had in the history of the company,” Murphy told West Life.
Company officials say what separates the North Carolina-based grocery chain is its food philosophy, which bans products containing additives such as artificial fats, preservatives, colors, sweeteners and preservatives. High fructose corn syrup is also banned, as are antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones in the store’s fresh meat and dairy sections.
Murphy said one of the company’s mottos is “We read the labels so you don’t have to.”
In the produce department, orange price tags indicate products certified as organic, while brown tags indicate naturally grown fruits or vegetables that have not been certified. Each Earth Fare store makes an effort to purchase produce from local farmers, defined as located within 100 miles of the store. Locally grown fruits and vegetables are indicated by a green tag.
Murphy, who has led the company since 2008, was personally involved in selecting Earth Fare’s Westgate location.
“These are $4 million bets,” he said of the site selection process.
The Boston native said he was impressed by the shopping center’s retail synergy.
“It’s rare that you find the depth of numerous retail stores,” Murphy said of Westgate, adding that it’s also rare to find a vacant spot in a high traffic shopping center.
Murphy acknowledges his company isn’t competing on price. But he added that shoppers unfamiliar with Earth Fare or organic food may be surprised they’ll pay only a slight premium for his store’s natural food offerings.
“I think they’ll find that the prices aren’t that much higher than they would pay for other kinds of food,” he said. “I’m not going to say that we’re going to be inexpensive, but you’re going to get a real value,” he said.
Most of Earth Fare’s marketing is done over the Internet, through social media and e-mail, Murphy said. Customers can sign up for Earth Fare’s e-mail newsletter to obtain coupons, but the company doesn’t have a frequent shopper card program.
In addition to healthy, natural products, Earth Fare emphasizes customer service and community outreach, its CEO said.
“We’d like you to learn about health, but we’d also like for you to feel like you’re coming home when you come here,” Murphy said.
While some grocery chains feature fresh food departments where customers can purchase a take-home or sit-down meal, Earth Fare is emphasizing its restaurant-style offerings. The Westgate location features a large seating area in the front of the store that features free Wi-Fi.
Every Thursday night from 4 to 8 at Earth Fare is family dinner night. With a $5 adult purchase from the prepared foods department, up to six children will receive free healthy kids meal. In addition to promoting healthy food choices among children, the promotion is designed to encourage families to spend dinnertime together.
From 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Earth Fare offers a “Good Olde Days” dinner of prime rib and mashed potatoes for $8.99.
“We’re also trying to put back the human connection and ‘the good old days’ and make this a real community gathering place,” Murphy explained.
Shoppers West Life spoke with said they appreciated having an additional choice when it comes to grocery purchases.
“We need another option other than Giant Eagle,” said Judy Nix, a North Olmsted resident. Whole Foods Market stores in University Heights and Woodmere are too far, she said.
Her daughter, Jennifer, added that Earth Fare was different than Trader Joe’s, another chain that features organic foods.
“This place is a lot bigger,” she said, referring to Trader Joe’s Crocker Park store.
Megan Kovacs, an employee at Westgate’s Fusions Inc. Salon and Day Spa, was at Earth Fare during her lunch break to get a meal of chicken and Italian sausage. Kovacs said her salon’s employees and clients had been looking forward to Earth Fare’s opening.
“It gives more options for us,” she said.