A new Whole Foods Market branch may be coming to Harlem, according to an offhand remark Whole Foods' CEO made last week—and local business leaders believe it could be in Manhattanville.
John Mackey, a co-CEO and co-founder of Whole Foods, announced plans to open a branch in Harlem at a talk at the store's Tribeca location last Tuesday, then immediately said he wished he had kept it under wraps, according to Max Goldberg, founder of organic food-and-drink blog livingmaxwell.com.
"He said, 'We are going to be opening up in Harlem,' followed by 'I shouldn't have said that,'" Goldberg wrote of Mackey.
Many Whole Foods markets in the city see high "foot traffic" and are located close to universities, said Barbara Askins, president of the 125th Street Business Improvement District, so building in Manhattanville, near the future site of Columbia's campus, "seems like a good area to consider."
"They seem to like to be in areas where there are a lot of students," Askins said. "It seems to work in those areas."
If Mackey's outburst indicates definite plans, Askins said she could see only two other viable locations along Harlem's "main street," 125th Street, without demolishing an existing building: in empty lots between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, and between Lenox and Fifth avenues, near Applebee's.
Curtis Archer, president of the West Harlem Economic Development Committee, agreed that a new Whole Foods located in Manhattanville would attract business from University students, workers and faculty—and a Manhattanville branch would be far enough away from Whole Foods' next nearest locations to "not cannibalize what they're already doing."
“With Columbia University’s expansion, there will be new opportunities created for other commercial amenities to kind of help support what Columbia University’s building," Archer said. He added that, given Whole Foods' reputation as a relatively expensive store, "the demographics that they're used to serving" may make the Columbia area more suited to Whole Foods.
But Archer added that, although Columbia's demographic may be "more in line" with Whole Foods' price points, people who live and work in Central Harlem would probably travel to shop at a Manhattanville Whole Foods. According to Archer, Whole Foods' brand name is one such that "if you build it, they will come"—and the presence of Whole Foods would give Harlem residents new shopping choices.
“If there’s one thing that certain consumers want, it’s choice and a greater selection of goods," Archer said, adding that Whole Foods would present a new alternative to Fairway Market, the other major grocery store in the area, on 12th Avenue at 133rd Street.
Archer said he would be optimistic about Whole Foods' potential move to Harlem, especially if the company would be "employing from the community locally and then also utilizing local vendors and suppliers." That, he said, was "something that would make them a good neighbor and a good business patron in the community.”