Trader Joe's is on the way

`Quirky' specialty-food retailer plans a store on edge of Columbia

September 03, 2006|by a Sun reporter

It is decidedly unusual, but much in demand.

That may explain why there was a slight smile on Albert Edwards' face when he finally dropped the name: "Trader Joe's."

For months, there had been rumor -- or was it wishful thinking? -- that TJ's, as the company is frequently called, was considering a store at Gateway Overlook, a 123-acre, mixed-use development under construction at Routes 175 and 108 on the edge of Columbia.

But Edwards, vice president and director of engineering for General Growth Properties Inc, the owner and developer of Gateway Overlook, acknowledged Thursday night that Trader Joe's had agreed to open a unit there.

The specialty retailer is uncommon -- "quirky" is how Slate magazine described it -- with its small stores, cramped aisles, dearth of national brands, nautical theme and Hawaiian shirts for employees.

But it always seems to create a stir once the public knows a TJ's is on the way.

"It's a great operator," said Jeffrey W. Metzger, publisher of Food World and an industry expert. "It's very unique and has done exceptionally well in the Mid-Atlantic region. They bring a totally different branding to food retailing to the market."

On Thursday night, the Planning Board unanimously approved a site development plan for Trader Joe's. It is not known when construction will begin.

It also approved a site plan for a unit of Harris Teeter Inc. in Kings Contrivance Village Center. Plans for that grocery store were announced in January.

TJ's store at Gateway Overlook will be 11,100 square feet. While that is five to six times smaller than the normal supermarket, it will have an impact, Metzger said.

The company was formed in the Los Angeles area in 1958 as a chain of convenience stores called Pronto Markets. The name was changed when company founder Joseph H. Coulombe expanded the store's selection and image. He decorated the stores with cedar-plank walls and nautical decor and required employees to wear Hawaiian shirts. It now has more than 200 stores in 19 states, including seven in Maryland.

Trader Joe's is owned by a family trust established by billionaire Theo Albrecht, one of two brothers who control Essen, Germany-based ALDI Group, which operates more than 7,500 supermarkets worldwide.

TJ's is a specialty store, offering hard-to-find gourmet, organic, vegetarian and unusual frozen foods. Many of its items are its private labels.

"It's a continuing of a trend that we've seen for the seven or eight years," Metzger said. "They are exploiting that niche, and the good ones, like Trader Joe's, clearly separate themselves from what their competition is doing."

Gateway Overlook is likely to be formidable on many fronts. Besides TJ's, the center will boast Lowes' Cos. Inc., the giant home-improvement chain, and Costco Wholesale Corp., the world's largest membership retail company, and an assortment of restaurants, banks and smaller shops.

The project is bounded by Route 175, Route 108, Lark Brown Road and Old Waterloo Road. When completed, Gateway Overlook also will have 66 attached houses, constructed by Ryland Group Inc.

While TJ's will join a new development, Harris Teeter will take the place of Safeway and a Friendly's restaurant, which closed several years ago. The store will be 56,581 square feet, significantly larger than the Safeway store, which closed in June.

Geoffrey Glazer, vice president of acquisitions and development for Kimco Realty Corp., which owns the shopping center, said the addition of Harris Teeter "will strengthen the overall vitality of the entire village center."

The entrance to the supermarket, he said, will be designed to help guide customers to other retailers in the center.

Glazer described Harris Teeter as a "superior" company, and he said, "We're so excited to get a retailer like this" at Kings Contrivance.

Planning Board member Linda A. Dombrowski said the addition of the store "is a wonderful opportunity to vitalize the shopping center. ... To see them falter is not good. They are essential."

Harris Teeter is a subsidiary of Charlotte, N.C.-based Ruddick Corp. and operates about 130 stores in seven states.

The entry into this market by Trader Joe's and Harris Teeter come at a time when the supermarket industry is engaged in a fight for customers and profits. Safeway and Giant Food have recently closed or announced plans to close a store in Columbia, and Food Lion LLC has reinvented itself by forming three divisions, including an upscale unit, Bloom, to retain customers and win back those who have fled to competitors.

That competition ranges from stores that rely on low prices, such as Shoppers Food & Pharmacy, to large-volume membership operations, such as BJ's Warehouse Club, to huge retailers, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., to high-end supermarkets like Wegmans Food Markets.

The 7.22-acre site development plan for Trader Joe's will include a unit of Golf Galaxy and smaller retailers, Edwards said.

Golf Galaxy, based in Eden Prairie, Minn., was formed in 1997 and operates 61 stores in 24 states.

The Planning Board approved two other site development plans for Gateway Overlook. The first was for Lowe's, an 117,737-square- foot, one-story building. It will include an outdoor garden center. The second was for a branch of Chevy Chase Bank.

The board also approved development plans for another Chevy Chase branch at the Dobbin Commercial Center in Columbia.

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