Grocery store change shocks neighborhood

February 4, 2011
By
 


Gazette Photo by David Taber
The shelves at Hi-Lo Foods at 415 Centre St. are nearly bare, and a lone shopper stands at the end of the produce aisle. After 47 years, the landmark Hyde Square supermarket, which catered to the neighborhood’s Latino population, is set to close and be replaced with a Whole Foods Market.

HYDE SQ.—The official announcement on Jan. 19 of the upcoming end of Hi-Lo Foods’ long run in Jamaica Plain has caused major reverberations throughout the community.

Since the Gazette reported on its web site on Jan. 14 that the Hi-Lo was closing and Whole Foods would be moving in, it has been a major topic of informal local conversation as well as at recent meetings of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council, JP Centre/South Main Streets and the Hyde/Jackson Business Association, to name just a few. Special meetings for Hi-Lo employees have also been held.

After 47 years of operating the grocery store at 415 Centre St., its owner, Knapp Foods, will be closing Hi-Lo to make way for the national organic and natural food chain. Meanwhile, Hi-Lo is still open, selling the last of its merchandise.

It plans to lease the space it owns to Whole Foods—a prospect that has been greeted with enthusiasm by some and decried by others. Whole Foods will not have access to the space until March, and does not yet know when it will open, Whole Foods spokesperson Heather McCready told the Gazette in an email.

She said Whole Foods does not plan to alter the existing footprint of the building, and plans to preserve a 1984 mural by Puerto Rican artist Rafael Rivera Garcia that adorns the building. The mural depicts three Tainos. The Tainos were a pre-Columbian people who lived throughout the Caribbean, but were annihilated by Spanish settlers in the 1500s.

Meanwhile, longtime Hi-Lo employees—some who have already been laid off and some who are still, for the moment, working at the store as it tries to sell off its dwindling stock—complained of poor communication by Knapp.

Representatives from Knapp did not respond to Gazette calls requesting comment by press time.

The tone at a Jan. 26 meeting to discuss the closure—hosted by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) and attended by over 50 store employees, community members and city and state officials—was one of critique of Knapp and Whole Foods.

The meeting—intended as a preliminary strategizing session for community members who feel they will be negatively impacted by the change—was conducted mostly in Spanish with English translation. No representatives from Knapp or Whole Foods attended.

JPNDC organizer Juan Gonzales told the Gazette that organization called the meeting after talking to Hi-Lo workers, “They said, ‘No one is approaching us,” he told the Gazette. “There were rumors that workers [were being let go] and not being compensated for overtime and vacation time,” he said.

At the meeting, laid-off workers corroborated those rumors, and community members voiced concerns about the implications of Hi-Lo moving out.

“This is not just about losing Hi-Lo. This is about losing our way of life here,” longtime Hyde Square resident Juan Lopez said at the meeting, speaking in English. “It shows a complete lack of respect for the community and the rich history of the district.”

In comments that were echoed by others at the meeting, Lopez said: “This would not have happened in Chinatown or the North End.”

Lopez and At Large City Councilor Felix Arroyo—who lives in JP—both said they wish that the local community and elected officials had been made aware that Hi-Lo was putting its property on the market.

“I could have talked to them and worked it out with them. I could have suggested another store, like America’s Food Basket that could have maintained the same kind of service,” Arroyo said at the meeting. America’s Food Basket is a Hyde Park-based grocery store that focuses on Latin American foodstuffs.

Lopez and Arroyo were among those who addressed the group both in Spanish and English.

Hi-Lo, which has operated under different names but under the same management for 47 years, has a long-standing reputation in JP’s Latino community and beyond for stocking a diverse array of food staples from all over Central and South America and the Caribbean Islands. Hi-Lo is the last of close to a dozen grocery stores that Knapp Foods has owned in the past half-century.

The stores focus on Latin American and Caribbean groceries was largely thanks to store manager Bill Jordan’s initiative. Jordan, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has worked at the store since it opened and managed it for almost that long.

The grocery store also has a reputation for being an affordable source for groceries for low-income and working families.

Not everyone is sad to be witnessing Hi-Lo’s apparent final chapter. “It’s not like this was an eclectic wonder…If it was, I would be in there everyday,” said resident Amber Johnson, who said that she has not been impressed with quality of the food and the upkeep of Hi-Lo since she and her family bought a house on Forbes Street three years ago.

“We are not rich people. We are not trying to gentrify this neighborhood or take away from the diversity of this neighborhood,” Johnson said. But, she said, she welcomes the prospect of Whole Foods moving in and stabilizing a business district that has taken some significant hits in recent years.

Notably, sister businesses the Milky Way Lounge and Bella Luna restaurant moved from prominent Hyde Square commercial spaces at 403-405 Centre St, into a consolidated space at the Brewery Complex on Amory Street in 2009. Those spaces have remained vacant since then.

At any rate, Whole Foods Market is committed to leasing the soon-to-be former Hi-Lo space from Knapp, so its move into Hyde Square is a practical inevitability.

And some city and state officials at the Jan. 26 meeting questioned the suggestion that Whole Foods moving in represents a significant blow to JP’s Latino community.

“I don’t believe we are losing out culture and our community,” said state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez, noting that the JPNDC-hosted meeting was taking place in a recently-constructed building built by the JPNDC and named after longtime JP activist Betsaida Gutierrez.

Enerio “Tony” Barros, a longtime JP activist who now works for the Mayor’s Office, said the city was meeting with Hyde Square and Jackson Square merchants—particularly small grocers—to discuss how they could expand their stock to meet community needs in the wake of Hi-Lo’s closing.

“This might be a chance for other businesses in the area to grow,” he said, speaking in Spanish.

Meeting attendees also discussed whether Whole Foods would need licenses and permits to move forward with its plans, and how those processes could be used to influence Whole Foods and Knapp—which remains the owner of the 415 Centre St. property.

McCready told the Gazette that Whole Foods does not yet know what licenses and permits it will need. “It is our goal in each of our stores to provide the products that our shoppers want, at a great value. Community members will have the opportunity to weigh in on the products they would like to see in the Jamaica Plain store,” she said in an e-mail.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz urged the community to think big, suggesting that the community could urge Whole Foods to build a second story at the Hi-Lo site to be used as an ethnic market. Local City Councilor Matt O’Malley and Jessica Taubner from At-Large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley’s office also attended the Jan. 26 meeting.

Of particular concern for meeting attendee was the plight of the about 40 current and former employees of Hi-Lo. Whole Foods plans to hire around 100 employees at its new store, and has agreed to interview former Hi-Lo workers who want to apply for those jobs or jobs at other Whole Foods stores in the area.

Many at the meeting said they would prefer to see the new grocer commit to hiring former Hi-Lo employees. Knapp also came under severe criticism for poor communication with its employees.

Former Hi-Lo employee Apolinar Lozano was let go two weeks ago after working at Hi-Lo for 24 years, he told the Gazette, speaking through a translator.

“They don’t really talk to anybody,” he said of the management of Knapp Foods.

Despite his troubles with the management, Lozano echoed comments from other Hi-Lo employees at the meeting, “I can only say that I feel sadness, despite my frustration with the management, [the employees at Hi-Lo] were a family,” he said.

The Mayor’s office hosted a daytime meeting Jan. 28 in order to get unemployment information and other information to Hi-Lo employees. Concerns were expressed at the Jan. 26 meeting that some employees would not be able to attend that meeting because they would be working. Barros said the meeting was just the first step in the city’s efforts to reach out to the workers.

The public conversation about the impact of Whole Foods on Hyde Square is scheduled to continue at a Feb. 8 public forum hosted by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council. [See JP Agenda.] McCready told the Gazette Whole Foods does not plan to send a representative to that meeting. The grocer plans to host its own ”town hall” meeting in the spring, she said.

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