Saturday, March 15, 2008
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15, 2008; D01
Kent Pendleton opened Produce Galore in 1976 with $1,000 won on a lottery ticket and turned the small gourmet grocery store into a fixture of the progressive town of Columbia. Customers raved about the homemade West African peanut soup, shared their family recipes and found good conversation alongside the plantains.
Thirty-two years later, Pendleton's luck has finally run out. Produce Galore shut its doors yesterday, caught in the crosshairs of the region's brutal supermarket wars.
"I can't believe it. I'm so upset. Everybody is," said Starr Sowers, who lives in Columbia and has been a customer for 30 years. She leaned in to give Pendleton and his wife and business partner, Margaret, a hug. "We are going to miss you so much," she told them.
Dozens of other longtime customers dropped in last week to say goodbye. The Pendletons told them they were too tired to keep fighting . Sales have fallen off in recent years as the neighborhood that developer James Rouse envisioned as a racially and economically mixed suburban utopia became like other suburban areas, complete with McMansions.
Now, the growth that has turned Howard County into one of the wealthiest counties in the country has caught the eye of national retailers. The first Costco in the county opened in October. The first Trader Joe's opened in the same shopping center a month later. The first Harris Teeter is slated to open this year, and Wegmans has won approval for a store in Howard. Produce Galore simply found itself in the way.
"Finally, you have to say, 'Okay, we have to do this,' " Pendleton said, referring to closing. He was sitting at a small table in the middle of store, amid depleted shelves that would never be restocked. "You do what you've been putting off for such a long time."
The story is a familiar one for small grocers, which the industry defines as those with 10 stores or less. Their share of the market has been eroding for years, according to trade publication Progressive Grocer. As of December 2007, there were 34,967 supermarkets in the country. Small independents accounted for 18 percent of that number, with 6,330 stores. With sales of $32.2 billion, their market share was less than 6 percent.
"It's a challenging world for the little guy," said Jeffrey Metzger, publisher of local trade magazine Food World. "He can exist, but he better come armed."
Pendleton grew up near Olney and was working at a produce market in Northeast Washington in the 1970s when he decided to strike out on his own. With the help of his brother, Jay, and the lucky lottery ticket, he built Produce Galore in a shopping center not far from his home.
The store opened on July 3, 1976, and quickly carved out a niche selling such exotic produce as bok choy at a time when competitors stocked only iceberg lettuce and cabbage. Pendleton carried basil, cilantro, watercress, ginger, fresh mushrooms and horseradish. The worldly professionals that populated Columbia literally ate it up.
"We thought, well, we had a chance here," Pendleton said.
In the 1980s, Produce Galore added stores in Laurel and Columbia. But Pendleton never harbored grand ambitions, and the business became too large to manage. He closed the second store in Columbia and sold the Laurel location to one of his employees so he could focus on the original site. That store hit its peak in about 2000, bringing in about $3.5 million.
Pendleton, a laconic fellow with a strong jaw, met Margaret, who grew up in Prince George's County, when she started working as a cashier at the store in the late 1970s. With her ready laugh and big eyes, she persuaded him to install the store's popular salad and hot bars, and is the chef who created the 400 varieties of soup offered over the years. The most popular by far is the West African peanut, a reflection of Columbia's diverse population, Margaret said.
She also pushed the business into catering, and the couple has done everything from baby showers to graduations and weddings -- sometimes, all for the same family. Their customers have been there for them as well. Eighteen years ago, Margaret's daughter was injured in a car accident and has been in a coma ever since. Her customers helped her realize that she had the strength to go on, she said.
The Pendletons have become such local institutions that they could barely tell their story on a recent afternoon as a steady stream of loyal customers stopped by to offer good wishes.
"We put everything we have into this business, and here we are," Margaret said. "Ready to retire, and we can't."
Produce Galore had a symbiotic relationship for many years with its Goliath competitors. Giant Food operated in the same shopping center, and the store fed off the heavy foot traffic. But two years ago, the Giant shut down, and its space remains vacant. The Pendletons watched traffic in the shopping center drop off and saw the empty parking spaces outside their store. They knew the end was near.
Produce Galore was losing its niche. Basil and cilantro are now supermarket staples, and upscale retailers such as Whole Foods and Wegmans satiate consumers' desires for even more exotic products at affordable prices. Shopping habits also have changed. Fewer customers seemed interested in stopping at multiple stores for their groceries, and Produce Galore was near the bottom of the list.
The Pendletons briefly considered trying to sell their business. But with such dominant national retailers marching across the county, no one was interested in taking such a risk. The only option, they decided, was to shut down.
"It's hard to fight the forces that we're up against now," Margaret said.
They broke the news to their staff -- which includes a family of four -- during a morning meeting at the store on Tuesday. They sent an e-mail to customers that same day explaining what had happened.
"Although we have been in denial for a while, it is time for us to face the facts," the e-mail said. "The current economic conditions are not going to change any time soon. In fact they are going to get worse before they get better."
The Pendletons put everything in the store on sale: from rounds of brie to chocolate truffles and loaves of walnut rye bread. By Wednesday, entire shelves had been emptied. The produce -- pink lady apples and sweet potatoes and D'Anjou pears -- was almost gone.
The couple is not sure what they will do today, having locked the doors for the last time. They still have about year and a half left on their lease with Kimco Realty, which operates the shopping center. They are used to working seven days a week. In the two decades that they've been married, they have never taken more than three days vacation together.
Maybe they'll try to keep their catering business going. Maybe they'll have to go out and look for jobs. For now, they're just trying to say goodbye.
"I'm getting a hug, too," said Heather Damore of Columbia, stopping by the table. "I'm just waiting for a millionaire to read your letter and say, 'I'm going to save you.' "
Damore paused, and then she had a better idea: "I'm going to buy a lottery ticket."
Posted by Columbia Talk at 10:04 AM