Each week through March 29th 540Blog will feature guest blog’s from city residents themed around gentrification. Today’s blog comes courtesy of Calvin Eaton. Check out Calvin’s blog below and be sure to register to attend 540WMain’s
‘Spring 19 Gentrification Conference // Development Without Displacement | Saturday March 30th // 10am-4pm | MCC Downtown Campus
What Harts Closing Means for Downtown by Calvin Eaton
Yesterday Glenn Kellogg Founder and President of Hart Local Grocers (Rochester’s only downtown grocery store) announced much to the surprise and dismay of the community that it will be closing its doors on March 24th after nearly five years in business.
As someone who has worked with Harts from the beginning when it opened in 2014 and having intimate knowledge of internal processes, staff and vendors this news albeit sad came as no surprise. My visits in recent weeks gave me a chilling feeling that the spirit and energy that once was had died. I can recall quite literally saying to friends and family recently that I felt that a closing was imminent. In the end, so many factors have contributed to this sad news for our City and Downtown development but more importantly so many questions remain.
- What went wrong?
- What will happen to the staff members (many of which live paycheck to paycheck) that are now without a job?
- Will Glenn Kellogg whose company owns the building find a tenant to replace the grocery store?
- Will staff receive a severance package?
- Will staff be able to collect unemployment?
- Will the local vendors that have become the heart and soul of Harts be paid in full?
- Harts was built with state and city grants, loans, and incentives; will they repay these debts in the closing?
What Harts Did Right
Harts when it was announced in January 2014 was the beacon of the growing Inner Loop fill in project. Hart’s was launched by Glenn Kellogg, an urban economic planner from Washington, D.C., who came to Rochester in 2011 with his wife. Kellogg modeled the grocery after a neighborhood market from the 1940s in the city called Hart’s, which was owned by businessman and philanthropist Alfred Hart. The store was set in the heart of the East End, directly on the bus line, close to The Little Theatre, 2Vine (now closed), RoCo, and a growing roster of residential development. It truly seemed like a win/win for Downtown as well as the community at large. Initially, management positioned Harts as a competitor to Wegmans but then quickly realized the error in this comparison and pivoted to make Harts a niche independent grocer that prioritized quality over low prices and sourcing from local small vendors, farmers, and merchants. This made sense for the stores size and very quickly Harts developed a community of local customers and vendors that made up for the prices that were in many cases double or triple what you would find in Wegmans, Tops or Aldi.
Harts became known for offering seasonal vendor pop up markets that highlighted local products as well as standalone and collaborative classes with Rochester Brainery. Another highlight of the store was the Harts cafe. The cafe offered a rotating menu of seasonal made to order sandwiches, smoothies, and coffee. Harts was frequently listed as offering one of Rochester’s best breakfast sandwiches. The cafe always had vegan and gluten free selections which made it a highlight from the beginning.
What Went Wrong
From the outset Harts garnered a reputation for being too expensive. As an independent grocer that worked with other local vendors it was no shock to me as someone learned in the retail world that their prices would not rival the prices of their regional grocery peers. Still one complaint that I recall hearing time and time again was that Harts was not priced for the every day Downtown resident. They eventually added the lesser priced Shurfine brand but by this time the reputation had been solidified. Even though Harts accepted EBT benefits this was not an aspect that they marketed or promoted heavily and many found Harts to be a store that quite frankly catered to those with more money and was curated less for community members who lived in poverty. Harts grocery delivery service went through many incarnations and by the time it took off for the store, Instacart and other options were on the market. In my opinion, Harts did not do a good job of marketing its delivery service or making it stand out from the crowd. All of this paled in comparison to the steady employee and management turnover which was an internal hurdle for the store from its inception. The most recent example of this was the unionization effort of employees that came from a result of years of the management putting the needs of its employees last and not first.
How Will It’s Closing Impact Current and Future Development
With Harts closure we now have no grocery store in Downtown Rochester. This is a problem for our regions growing residential and commercial downtown district. Perhaps the community placed too much weight on Harts but perhaps Harts didn’t promote itself good enough for the every day consumer. What we know from Harts trajectory is that any grocer that comes to Downtown must meet the needs of all community residents and not just a privileged few. We know that Rochester has the highest concentration of poverty of any city of it’s size in the nation and this means that people need to be able to afford to feed their families. Harts overall did not meet this need very well. A niche specialty grocery store is not what Downtown Rochester needed and for all intents and purposes this is what Harts Local Grocers was.
- How did the City and County support Harts and its mission? We know that Harts was built with City and County subsidies, grants, and loans so it would be great to know how much the City supported the store’s success.
- Could this closure have been prevented?
- What about a worker co-op model? Many people compared Harts to Abundance Co-Op which now lives in the South Wedge.
- Could a worker owned model be a possibility?
- Is there still time to consider these questions? Or has the decision been made?
- How will the City of Rochester support another Downtown grocer?
- Based on what we keep being told about current development from Heidi Zimmer- Meyer, Bob Duffy, and the Mayor’s Office a Downtown grocery store should be successful.
- What do we need to do to make one successful?
It seems that Harts could have been more forthcoming about its issues many months before announcing this closure and had there been more transparency perhaps the community could have been included in helping management find a solution. Unfortunately like most major development in our City, the community is the last to be included and by the time we do hear or learn about anything; the decisions have already been made.
It’s too bad since Harts made community so much a part of its model that it lacked the humility and transparency to include the same community that helped it last almost five years. Another big development built with taxpayer dollars bites the dust.
Another major development built with taxpayer dollars bites the dust