A Crowded Market

If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then the local supermarkets have Wheatsville to thank for their entry into the natural foods business.

But it wasn't until Central Market flung open its doors that we the masses finally figured out what we've been searching for all along: Healthy food in aesthetically pleasing surroundings. That realization, in early 1994, set off a frenzy of activity that has been building steam ever since. Now Sun Harvest, already doing a brisk business locally, is shopping for one, maybe two, new sites around town, which would bring to four the number of Austin stores for the San Antonio chain.

"We'd like to be able to expand if the opportunity arises," says Marc Nourani, a Sun Harvest team leader in the company's San Antonio headquarters. "We feel that we could serve a niche in the northwest part of town and also in Central Austin, where we think we'd be able to pick off some of Whole Foods customers. That's not to sound arrogant," he adds. "We just think we have something a little different to offer."

Sun Harvest, you may recall, saved the day for South Austin foodies when Whole Foods closed its store in Brodie Oaks. Sun Harvest quickly moved into their old location to fill the void and, by most accounts, have reaped many of the same rewards Whole Foods did before it pulled out and headed downtown to Sixth & Lamar.

Even Foodland, the local Sad Sack of grocery stores, has gotten into the act. Last month, former Randalls grocery exec Joe Cutrer bought the locally owned chain and rechristened the stores with a Nineties name -- Cutrer's City Market.

Another homegrown grocery, Fresh Plus, has shuttered five of its stores over the years, but is still hanging tough with two (the West Lynn location gets the prize for carving out an excellent neighborhood niche for itself).

Grocery watchers say Houston-based Randalls, having borrowed heavily to snap up the Austin Tom Thumb and AppleTree stores three years ago, is still trying hard to please after its shaky entry into the local market. The chain also is taking steps to move more aggressively into the natural foods area.

Still the dominant force in the market, of course, is H.E.B., which -- surprise, surprise -- is putting down stakes right across the street from the new Randalls store at South MoPac and William Cannon. Other southwest Austin locations on the books for H.E.B. are a new Westgate Mall store and another at Bee Caves & Hwy. 71.

Fiesta Mart, lest we forget, doesn't appear to be hurting in these head-to-head times, and still draws the greatest ethnic mix of any retail grocery store. Finally, there's Albertson's, that corpulent chain out of Idaho, which manages to rake in local dollars despite making little or no effort to move into the organically correct arena.

Not to go unmentioned in this bunch is the little Avenue B Grocery and Market -- truly a neighborhood store's neighborhood store.

As for how they rank on an organics scale, a recent grocery store survey, included in this year's Austin Environmental Directory, ranked Whole Foods first in all areas of natural foods. Sun Harvest, Central Market, and Wheatsville tied for second in the study headed by directory editor Paul Robbins. Rounding out the top 10, in order, were Fresh Plus, H.E.B., Simon David (the soon-to-be-closed Randalls store), Randalls, Fiesta, and Foodland. Albertson's ranked last, but, as Robbins points out, the boys in Boise refused to participate in the local survey. -- A.S.

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