First there was Trader Joe’s at Stonefield. Then came Fresh Market at Albemarle Square. Word that a Wegmans is coming to Fifth Street set foodie hearts aflutter when it was announced in 2012. In what has become a veritable parade of grocery stores marching into Charlottesville, the new ones just keep on coming.
The latest grocery chain rattling the gates is Aldi, a German grocery powerhouse and the corporate sibling of Trader Joe’s, which is eyeing Hollymead Town Center as a possible location.
With 1,200 stores in 32 states—the closest in Culpeper—Aldi may not be a household name in Charlottesville yet, but across Europe and in the U.S. markets it’s entered, it inspires customer loyalty and has earned high marks in the media.
“Trader Joe Has a Brother. He’s Even Better,” raves the headline of a December article about Aldi on Slate.com.
“The company capitalizes on the bargain hunter, who is not embarrassed to choose frugality over name brands,” explains a 2011 New York Times article, and indeed the Aldi website offers a few samples of savings: gourmet pizzas for $3.99; gourmet mustard for $1.69. In addition to food, Aldi carries various other discounted items from car floor mats to humidifiers.
Local mortgage broker Carl Garrett was a loyal Aldi shopper when he lived in Ohio in the mid-1990s, and said he hopes the store is approved for Hollymead.
“The prices were really good, and I was broke at the time so I really enjoyed that,” he said with a laugh.
But the Aldi experience isn’t for everyone, particularly those looking for luxury on their shopping expeditions.
“It was definitely that food warehouse type of feel,” said Garrett. “It’s a no frills type of place.”
Aldi stores don’t accept credit cards (although debit and EBT cards are typically welcome) and the stores also charge customers for bags, unless they’ve brought their own reusables. Carts require a small fee, refundable when shoppers return them.
If the notion of bargain groceries north of town has you grinning, don’t get too excited just yet. An Aldi spokesperson declined to comment on the Charlottesville site, and Hollymead developer Wendell Wood said the county’s Architectural Review Board must first approve changes to the site including shrinking an approved 30,000 square-foot building down to Aldi’s desired size of 17,000 square feet.
“If we don’t get ARB approval, the deal won’t happen,” said Wood, who expressed optimism that the ARB will eventually vote to allow the changes.
“They seemed to like what we proposed,” he said, noting that the Aldi issue will next be considered by the ARB in February, and a final decision could still be six or eight months away.
In the meantime, those who love low prices for bulk foods and household goods are watching Stonefield, where superstore Costco is preparing to enter the market. Construction is due to begin this coming spring, and the store should open in spring 2015, according to a PR rep for the shopping center.
On the south side of town, the Wegmans grocery store is also still a go at the Fifth Street Station development, according to that project’s spokesperson, Alan Taylor of Riverbend Management firm. Beloved for its massive selection, free samples, and prepared foods, Wegmans should be underway early in 2014 and is scheduled for completion sometime in 2015, said Taylor.
The sheer number and variety of grocery stores in Charlottesville is part of a growth process that local real estate broker and blogger Jim Duncan sees as both good and bad.
“Being a five- or 10-minute drive from a grocery store is good thing,” he said. “But the negative is that I feel we are losing some of what makes Charlottesville unique as a cohesive community. When Charlottesville was smaller, people knew different parts of the county because they had to go there. Now, it’s a different environment where everything is relatively close to home, and there’s less reason to venture outside of our own area.”