It seems there is a Wal-Mart-esque story brewing in Berkeley. But this time it’s not Wal-Mart that’s at fault for driving another mom and pop business out of town.
It’s Whole Foods, the 29-year-old natural food grocery that prides itself on socially responsible ingredients, buying directly from local farmers and growers and providing shoppers with everything from massages to hemp clothing to gelato stands.
After more than 50 years, Ashby Flowers, the flower and plant shop at the corner of Ashby and Telegraph avenues, will be forced to close at end of July because Whole Foods, the corporation that owns the shop’s building, has declined to renew the shop’s lease, said flower shop spokeswoman Stacey Simon.
Started by a group of 19 people in Texas in 1980, Whole Foods has long prided itself on its “core values,” which are posted on its Web site.
Core values include selling the highest quality natural and organic products available; satisfying and delighting our customers; supporting team members happiness and excellence; creating wealth through profits and growth; caring about our communities and our environment; and creating ongoing win-win partnerships with our suppliers.
Call me crazy, but killing the livelihood of people who sank their life savings into a shop doesn’t sound like “caring about our communities.”
Owners Iraj Misaghi and Marcy Simon, who bought the shop in 1995, have since expanded the store’s customer base and developed business relationships with the area’s major businesses and institutions.
“We’ve worked hard to support our customers and be a good neighbor,” said Simon. “And I realize that times are tough right now. But to build their business on the backs of small local businesses seems to go against the core values that Whole Foods publicizes on its Web site.”
Simon said Whole Foods won’t tell them why they won’t renew the lease.
“But we’ve learned they plan to put a coffee shop in the space we occupy. So, they kill two birds with one stone: they get rid of the competition and drive customers away from the three or four independently owned coffee shops that have been here for years.”
Simon said this is yet another example of Whole Foods talking out of both sides of its proverbial mouth.
“And it’s not the first time. There are lots of examples of its mercenary behavior. We all might expect this sort of thing from traditional big box stores like Wal-Mart, but Whole Foods has done a really good job of snowing the public,’’ she said.
Simon says many recent stories and blog entries show that Whole Foods is straying from its roots. Here are a few:
But the flower shop owners won’t be fighting their battle alone. In a letter to Whole Foods Market Northern Region President David Lannon, Berkeley’s Halcyon Neighborhood Association decried the market’s decision to expand its operations by removing the flower shop that has stood outside the Berkeley store for more than 50 years.
“In addition to our support for renewal of the Ashby Flowers’ lease, we feel it’s important for the Whole Foods Market management team to understand that any application for a changed use at Ashby Flowers’ site is likely to meet with strong neighborhood opposition,” the letter states. “We were told that a café where customers can pick up a quick cup of coffee or a sandwich is the plan once Ashby Flowers is evicted. Please note that we believe that this change in use… would be detrimental to our neighborhood.”
The Halcyon Neighborhood Association covers the area including and immediately to the southwest of the Whole Foods. It casts a wide net. Flyers go to nearby 900 households, and an electronic newsletter reaches 400 households and another 150 households though a listserv in the Le Conte neighborhood, association officials said.
The letter also says that Ashby Flowers has been there to help neighbors celebrate and mourn the key milestones of our lives for several generations.
“In addition, we’re concerned that creating a café on the corner would have a negative impact on another locally owned business, Mokka Café, which is just a block to the south, as well as on local cafés to the north on Telegraph. While we appreciate the community-minded spirit that Whole Foods Market often embodies, it’s simply not appropriate for its physical plant to expand at the expense of valuable local businesses that contribute so much to our neighborhood.”