The Market @ 25th working to build success

Ronald E. Carrington | 3/13/2020, 6 a.m.
The opening of The Market @ 25th last April was marked with great fanfare, Armstrong High School’s marching band, a …
Norm Gold, right, developer and operator of The Market@25th, stands outside the grocery in Church Hill with store director Jae Scott before last April’s grand opening. Photo by Regina H. Boone

The opening of The Market @ 25th last April was marked with great fanfare, Armstrong High School’s marching band, a balloon release and high hopes for a community known for being a food desert.

Now, nearly a year later, the sound of band music has faded and the balloons are gone. The fanfare has given way to the hard work of building a brand and serving the Church Hill community.

The 25,000-square-foot grocery store at 25th Street and Fairmount Avenue — part of a complex that includes The Flats @ 25th, a 42-unit apartment complex; the VCU Health Hub @ 25th, a community resource center; and the nearby The Kitchens at Reynolds, J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College’s culinary school opening this spring — launched with the mission of providing jobs for people from the community and boosting healthy food options and health services to area residents.

The store has had ups and downs since opening, with layoffs and fluctuating prices to be more competitive with chain grocer- ies as it works to meet the needs of low-income residents and senior citizens while attracting more affluent residents gentrify- ing the area.

The Market @ 25th had 92 employees at the grand opening. In October, the number had dropped to 77. The present workforce is 64.

Norm Gold, the store’s developer and operator, said last fall that the store was losing more money than planned. But investor Steve Markel told the media at the time that he is committed to the store’s success.

As The Market @ 25th gradually grows, Mr. Gold said in a recent Free Press interview, it will get easier going head-to- head with competitors, especially the Walmart Supercenter in the Eastgate Town Center in Eastern Henrico, whose prices, he said, are hard to undercut.

“Our service is certainly much better than Walmart, and our sales are going up,” Mr. Gold said. “People come in for our service. There is enough business in the area to satisfy everybody.”

As a longtime businessman, he knows habits are hard to break. If customers are accustomed to shopping at Walmart or other stores, it takes time to get people to change and give The Market @ 25th a try.

Mr. Gold emphasized the importance of partnerships with local vendors and food growers, whose numbers have increased from 60 last April to about 75 currently.

He also talked about partnerships with Richmond Public Schools, community organizations and churches. Those part- nerships include a new Virginia Fresh Match grant, a nutrition incentive program that matches funds to allow shoppers using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to buy more fresh local fruits and vegetables.

SNAP cardholders, who presently receive a 50 percent dis- count on the price of fresh produce, now can receive the same discount on frozen vegetables, Mr. Gold said.

The store also is offering a new home delivery feature, Market @ 25th Delivers. Residents within an 8-mile radius can order online or use the mobile app Rosie or Grubhub to have their groceries delivered. Giving back to the community is an important part of the market’s mission. Curtis Lee, the store’s outreach manager who has spent his whole life in the East End, said he wants people to understand the store’s benefit to the community.

“Ninety percent of the employees are from Church Hill,” Mr. Lee said. “These are people who may have made a mistake in their lives that deemed them unemployable. They went through our extensive training and learned skills to make them good employees.”

The store also is offering a new loyalty card that gives holders discounts, as well as an opportunity to donate rewards to the city school system or to a church or community organization, Mr. Lee said.

“This is part of (the store’s) mission of giving back as well as a win-win for everyone.”