Not a mirage: New market an oasis amid Chattanooga Southside's food desert

Not a mirage: New market an oasis amid Chattanooga Southside's food desert

December 1st, 2012 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Jonathan Pflug, Willie Baskerville and Lonnie Bone, from left, work on the construction of Enzo's Market on West Main Street. The grocery store is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Photo by Allison Love /Times Free Press.

Enzo's Market

Enzo's Market

Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.

Enzo's at a glance

* What -- locally-sourced grocery store

* Where -- 100 West Main St.

* When open -- February 2013

* Cost -- $4.5 million

* Workers -- 40

* Parking -- 45 spaces, plus street parking

* Hours -- 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

* Features -- Wine store and deli with patio

* Architects -- H&K Architects

* Proprietor -- Sam Turner

* Developer -- Eric Cummings

Source: EIR Management, LLC, news reports

A new oasis of nourishment will slice Chattanooga's food desert in half, as a new grocery store takes shape on the city's Southside.

Enzo's Market could open in late February 2013, more than three years after grocer Sam Turner formally announced the $4.5 million, 16,000-square-foot store.

The new grocery store will complement a planned Publix on the city's North Shore, leaving only the city's poorer west and east sides without a convenient place to shop for perishable goods.

"You've got a lot more people who have moved back into the city with lots of new residences, and until now they've had to go outside of the city to find the products they're looking for," Turner said.

Downtown residents have for some time been able to choose from Buehler's, a local market, and Greenlife Grocery-turned Whole Foods, which sells goods at a higher price point. But the city hasn't enjoyed a mid-market choice in years, residents say. Enzo's could fill the gap with locally-sourced food, a 1,200-square-foot wine store and a large deli, Turner said.

"We're seeing a lot of excitement about it because people are happy to see a grocery store coming back into downtown Chattanooga," he said. "We're going to do a fair amount of prepared foods for people to carry home for dinner, as well as take home for carry out for lunch, and a patio to sit there and eat it."

Turner, the former owner of 131 Favorite Market convenience stores, said he got the store's name from the founder of an Italian automobile manufacturer, Enzo Anselmo Ferrari. But the sluggish pace of construction hasn't matched the store's racing heritage.

The problem was finding the money to finance the store, said Kim White, president and CEO of non-profit River City Co., though local grants and investment eventually helped push the project forward.

"We can finally take grocery stores off our list for downtown right now," White said. "I think we've got it covered, from organic to public to local, we have the best of all worlds."

With banks reluctant to loan money for a new grocery store and no government support, neighbors essentially financed the project themselves, White said.

"You have some major advocates who are putting their money where their mouth is," she said.

But even as North Shore and Southside residents celebrate their new shopping options, neighborhoods on the east and west sides may have to make do with a once-a-week "mobile market" deliveries for the foreseeable future, said Jeff Pfitzer, program director for the Benwood Foundation's Gaining Ground initiative.

"The general consensus is, if building a grocery store there was easy and profitable, someone would already be doing it," he said.

The problem, Pfitzer said, is that there are too many lower-income consumers clustered together in those areas. That makes it unprofitable for grocery stores -- which generally operate with low margins to begin with -- to build new locations in those communities. Instead, those residents shop primarily at convenience stores and fast-food restaurants, he said, which is unhealthy at best.

"It's a bit of a failed experiment nationally to concentrate lower income housing together," Pfitzer said. "Right now, the best model we have seen for them is the mobile market."

At Enzo's, the only thing that could still delay the coming grocery store is the sign, Turner said, which has somehow ran afoul of Chattanooga's restrictive sign ordinance.

"That's been one of our stumbling blocks with the city," Turner said. "Hopefully, we'll get it resolved."