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City Still Working to Replace Failed Downtown Supermarket

New Brunswick's Food Desert Persists Almost a Year After FreshGrocer Closed
FreshGrocer Sign
TheFreshGrocer lasted just 18 months in the Hub City, leaving a huge vacancy and a food desert behind. Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Officials at the New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA) said that representatives of a supermarket company were recently in town as part of ongoing talks to replace the city's vacant FreshGrocer supermarket.

"We have a company that we are negotiating with and they've made several visits to the site," said NBPA Chairman Kevin McTernan.

The most recent visit was on Monday, March 2, officials said.

"We're also looking at the terms of the business deal that will take place there," McTernan said. "So we're moving forward."

"Felt good. Productive meeting," Mitch Karon told New Brunswick Today after the most recent get-together.

"It went well," said Chris Paladino, President of New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO), the developer that built the project that includes the supermarket.

The original operator, Pennsylvania-based FreshGrocer, left town after just 18 months, owing $1 million to their landlord, the NBPA. The store, which anchored a key redevelopment project in downtown still sits vacant ten months later.

When the store was being built, Governor Chris Christie's running mate, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno said, "The opening of Fresh Grocer helps address two very important priorities of the Christie administration: Jobs for city residents and access to fresh and healthy food for local families."

But the closure of the grocer resulted in a blow to both those priorities.

Originally officials touted that the store had more than 300 employees, and a majority were city residents.  By the time it was closing for good, the Fresh Grocer said it had less than 100 people on staff in New Brunswick.

More importantly, the store's closure means that much of the city is once again a food desert, without a place to reliably obtain healthy, affordable food.

The city's booming downtown and the increasing number of residents who call it home are now forced to get by with only the small Bravo supermarket, a RiteAid pharmacy and several convenience stores.

Paladino told NJBIZ that the new 50,000-square-foot supermarket would "fill a vacuum for city residents, commuters, students and visitors." 

Competition from established suburban grocery stores was just one the many problems plaguing the grocer from the very beginning.

Other problems included high prices and staff turnover, poor management and marketing efforts, a lack of products that appealed to the city's immigrant community, as well as some produce, hot foods, and other items that didn't live up to the store's "fresh" brand name.

The large distance between the parking and pedestrians entrances, and the absence of a crosswalk or the planned pedestrian bridge to the city's train station also took its toll on business.

In October, Mayor James Cahill said he was confident that a new market could be open for business as early as spring, if all goes well.

"A realistic timeframe that I think things could happen if they move along at a reasonable pace would be the spring of next year. That's what we're looking for," said Cahill. 

A little over two months later, Cahill again spoke about the grocery store space in his 2015 State of the City address.

"While we saw the closure of the Fresh Grocer supermarket earlier last year, we remain committed to maintaining a full-service supermarket at this location," Cahill said.

"We are presently in discussions with several potential tenants and I am confident we will see a new supermarket in our downtown in 2015."