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Food-shopping options multiply in the Treasure Valley

Two new supermarkets with a local, natural-foods bent have opened in Ada County in the last month.

Another competitor is on the way — Whole Foods, whose opening has been delayed until next year — and the veteran Boise Co-op gave itself a makeover.

Supermarkets already settled in the Valley are growing. Walmart plans to open at least two neighborhood grocery stores, including one set to open next spring near Cole and Ustick roads in Boise. A new Fred Meyer is under construction at Linder Road and Chinden Boulevard in Meridian. And WinCo Foods has invested $2 million in a 23,000-square-foot expansion of its Nampa/Caldwell Boulevard store.

The new arrivals believe the Treasure Valley is ready for more competition. But research by a national group leaves open the question of whether shoppers will opt for loyalty or novelty.

ROSAUERS “FELL IN LOVE” WITH MERIDIAN

Rosauers Supermarket opened this week at Eagle and Ustick roads in Meridian, with 130 new local employees.

“We came here because the market just seemed right,” said Jeff Philipps, president and CEO of the Spokane company. “This location was shown to us by the developer, and we just fell in love with it.”

It wasn’t just a gut feeling, though. Rosauers did market research, paying a company to do a demographic study and telephone interviews to gauge appetite for the store.

Philipps says the company saw only four local competitors when it decided to open here: Albertsons, WinCo, Fred Meyer and Walmart. In Spokane, “we have 11 different retailers sharing the same space,” Philipps said.

Including its natural- and organic-foods section, the 60,000-square-foot supermarket carries about 75,000 products — nearly twice that of a typical grocery store, according to Philipps. The Meridian store is “a knock-off” of a Rosauers store in Bozeman, Mont.

Philipps said Rosauers maintains a local focus, giving its deli chefs the independence to decide “what the market wants,” be it brick-oven pizza toppings or new side salads.

He also wants shoppers to have a human experience, purposely rejecting self-checkout lanes. “We’ve never gotten into those — probably never will,” he said.

A NATURAL ADDITION

The Boise Bench got a new supermarket last month when Colorado-based Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage opened at 1195 N. Milwaukee St., in a former CompUSA computer store.

At the time, co-president Kemper Isely said the family-owned company had been “looking forward to entering the Idaho market for a while,” in part because Boise residents are “highly educated” and committed to personal health.

The Natural Grocers theme is organic, natural and gluten-free. The store shuns meat from animals fed hormones and antibiotics, products made with artificial sweeteners, synthetic flavors, bleached flour and hydrogenated oils.

It also doesn’t use plastic or paper bags.

“The Iselys, as a team, do their homework before selecting a location,” said Nancy Flynn, marketing director.

Kemper Isely “and his siblings have been exposed to, and part of, this industry their entire lives, and … their decision is one that is not taken lightly, it is thoroughly researched,” Flynn said. “It would appear (the formula for choosing new locations has) been successful so far.”

The store is a third the size of Rosauers and, when fully staffed, will have about a third as many employees.

THE ORIGINAL

Shelves filled with an almost overwhelming array of local, natural, organic products — for decades, that’s been the Boise Co-op’s thing.

But the store on 8th and Fort streets has been telegraphing big changes since last year, when longtime manager Ken Kavanagh was replaced with Ben Kuzma from Arizona.

With Downtown Boise chosen for the Treasure Valley’s first Whole Foods, the North End fixture took the “adapt or die” mantra to heart.

“Boise Co-op has had the luxury of being the main natural foods grocery in Boise for a long time,” said Michael Boss, spokesman for the Co-op. “We feel that the natural foods market in Treasure Valley may have been under-served for several years, and … a new balance is being established.”

The Co-op has reacted by matching its competitors in some ways and trying to outdo them in others.

It’s adding a cafe-style eating area, hot and cold food in a self-serve section, and more pet-food options. It’s making the whole store brighter and less cluttered.

It’s also doing what publicly traded Whole Foods can’t: offering to give members 20 percent of its profits.

As to the other stores, Boss is confident in the Co-op succeeding over a chain that answers to out-of-state headquarters.

“Although we may not be able to outspend a competitor like Whole Foods, we believe we can certainly out-local them,” Boss said.

The store buys from more than 180 local and regional food producers, he said.

But it’s also banking on customer loyalty. Boss said it would be “next to impossible for anyone to come into this market and duplicate overnight the nexus of relationships we’ve built over the past 40 years.”

A call to Whole Foods was not immediately returned.

WHAT DO SHOPPERS WANT?

The National Grocers Association, a trade group of independent grocers, surveyed about 1,800 “chief household shoppers” last year. It found that low prices aren’t as important as they were four years ago.

More than half of the shoppers said they will pay more for food at a store that supports causes they believe in, especially education and fighting child hunger.

But the association also found that independent grocers — privately or family-owned, for the most part — weren’t in a financial upswing last year. The economy pushed 2011 profit margins down 2.3 percent.

For lower- and middle-income shoppers, who make up most of the Treasure Valley, price and value will be “a priority,” the NGA said.

What else is powerful? The allure of a new store.

More than three-quarters of people will try a new store in their neighborhood, the NGA found.

The Treasure Valley will have plenty of chances to do that. For those who cherish “natural” food, this year and next will be a sea change.

According to Boss, the natural-foods market isn’t getting saturated as much because natural and organic is becoming a “new normal.”

Audrey Dutton: 377-6448

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