A section of Roanoke already identified as a food desert just got a little drier with the closing of one of its few grocery stores.
Customers of the Save-A-Lot store at 4142 Melrose Ave. N.W. were greeted Sunday by a darkened store with empty shelves and a sign from the owner taped to the door.
“Dear Customer: It is with regret that we inform you that Save-A-Lot is closed permanently,” the sign said.
Patrons were still stumbling upon the bad news Tuesday. Eric Henry, 27, parked out front about 1:30 p.m. and was walking toward the front doors when he stopped, cocked his head and peered into the darkened store. Confused, he took a few more steps to make sure of what he saw.
Henry, who lives nearby, shops at the store every week for his family of three, he said. Tuesday he’d come for tomatoes, rice, cabbage, carrots, beef and pork chops. He said he noticed no indication the store was about to close when he shopped there about a week ago.
“Nobody mentioned about it,” he said.
Rett Ward of Roanoke, the store’s owner, couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday. On Monday, he told WSLS (Channel 10) he wished he could keep the store open.
“We’ve tried hard to make it work here and, with all the new competition and the discount grocery business, we just weren’t able to make it work,” he said. “It’s really sad, but that’s just the way it is.” Last month, Ward and his wife, Maria, sold Tinnell’s Finer Foods Inc., their South Roanoke boutique grocery store, to its neighbor, the River and Rail restaurant. The new owner will offer lunch and to-go food options in the space.
The Save-A-Lot closing comes as the city, bolstered by a market study of the area, is attempting to lure a grocer to a sector of the city that’s been short on quality grocery options for a couple of decades.
Since then, residents of the area, many of whom don’t own cars, have depended on corner stores and used mass transit to get to supermarkets outside the neighborhood.
The study, however, found there’s a market for a full-service grocer there, and city officials are hoping to lure an investor to the neighborhood.
Ward opened the Save-A-Lot franchise in 2008 in a former Winn-Dixie store in the Roanoke-Salem Plaza because he recognized the neighborhood was underserved. Save-A-Lot’s business model seemed like a fit, he said in 2011.
Where a Kroger or Food Lion might offer tens of thousands of items and multiple brands of any one product, Save-A-Lot stocked usually just one brand of each item.
Ward said the store had perhaps 1,500 products, but you could find anything there you’d find in a larger store, including fresh produce and meat and poultry.
After a few years, the store was seeing 10% annual growth, Ward said in 2011.
The recent market survey, however, found that among 300 residents of the Melrose-Rugby and Loudon-Melrose neighborhoods, just roughly one in 10 visited Save-A-Lot for its main shopping. Larger chain stores outside the neighborhood were more popular.
The study was paid for by Invest Health, a grant-funded nonprofit, working with city government, Freedom First Credit Union, Healthy Roanoke Valley and the Local Environmental Agriculture Project, or LEAP.
The city has made the study available as market research for a developer/operator, said Chris Chittum, Roanoke director of planning, building and development. The city is also letting anyone interested know that it’s willing to support the effort financially with community development money.
“So far, interest has not yet materialized into any development proposals,” Chittum said. “We remain open to discussing any conventional or alternative models.”
Until then, Northwest residents will have one less place to shop. Henry shook his head at the sudden closing of his go-to store, but said he’d be fine.
He climbed in his car and headed to Food Lion.