Opening a grocery store that sells tomatoes for $2.49 a pound may take a lot of chutzpah during a recession -- or any other time for that matter.
But that's exactly what is about to happen at the Festival at Woodholme, a swank Pikesville area shopping center north of the Beltway on Reisterstown Road. Starting in early November, Sutton Place Gourmet, the trendy Washington food chain, will swing open the doors on its first Baltimore store.
Leasing approximately 14,000 square feet and pumping in more than a $1 million in renovations, Sutton Place will be the anchor tenant for the three-year-old plaza.
With an emphasis on gourmet prepared foods and organically grown produce, the shop is almost certain to lend a certain panache to a center that not too long ago was having trouble with vacancies and collecting rents.
That was before the 82,000-square-foot center was taken over last summer by Greenebaum & Rose Associates, the Baltimore and Washington development firm. Today, the Festival at Woodholme is 100 percent leased and real estate agents are calling it a local success story during a time of sorry economic news.
"This is an absolutely superb location," said Lawrence Mekulski, a partner at KLNB Realtors in Baltimore. "If there was another 20 acres in there, they could fill it up."
That is not altogether common these days among retail centers, where the average vacancy rate is about 10 percent overall, said Mekulski. Location and the age of the center are major factors in determining success.
Riding against the recessionary wave is Stewart Greenebaum, president of the firm that bought Woodholme from Texas-based Trammell Crow in June.
At that time, the center was anchored by the Gourmet Shop, a similarly upscale grocer that Greenebaum said was "under capitalized" and unable to deliver the right product. It closed this year.
Greenebaum credits the center's turnaround to aggressive leasing that targeted a group of upscale retailers and turned away those it didn't want.
"You can't rent space by putting up a sign or running an ad," he said. "In bad times the owner gets off his butt and goes out and earns his keep."
The result has been not only Sutton Place, but Riccoco's, a posh women's clothier, and Paul's of Pikesville, a new hair salon. The center also has such tenants as Renaissance Gallery, Marley Jewelers and the Door Store.
Targeting an upscale market fits with the demographics of the area, said Greenebaum, who calls Pikesville the "Bethesda of Baltimore," referring to the elite Washington suburb.
Greenebaum said Trammell Crow was having difficulty making the center work because they were out of touch with the community.
"What was wrong was that it was in the hands of a Texas developer who had lost more shoping centers than some teams loose baseball games," Greenebaum said. "We felt that they didn't have a clear understanding of who the tenants should be."
Greenebaum believes he knows better. And if having a gourmet grocery store with expensive tomatoes is risky business, he isn't shying away from it.
"It's a risk that I'm pleased to take," he said. "I believe that these are times that present challenges. I like the challenges."