If Gig Harbor’s grocery scene had a Facebook page, its relationship status would be listed as “complicated.”
In the past six months, store openings, closings, negotiations and proposed redesigns — on top of social-media-fueled rumors — have resulted in tumultuous times for food shoppers on the peninsula.
The ups and downs continued last week with news that Town & Country Market wants to open its first Pierce County store in north Gig Harbor, while the Haggen grocery chain filed for bankruptcy protection.
Other big changes on the horizon include a $6 million overhaul of QFC and a new $22 million Fred Meyer store on the west side of state Route 16. The old Fred Meyer on the east side of the highway will close, leaving no full-size grocery stores between the downtown and uptown areas for the foreseeable future.
The lone grocery store in downtown Gig Harbor closed in 2011. QFC had operated on Judson Street since 2003; before that, Thriftway served generations of customers at the same location.
Amid all the instability, one thing is certain: Big box stores will not dominate the city’s grocery landscape. Zoning rules prohibit stores larger than 65,000 square feet.
Within those constraints, Mayor Jill Guernsey told The News Tribune she would like to see a full-size grocery store serving the central core of Gig Harbor to supplement what’s available at smaller businesses such as Finholm’s Market and The Harbor General Store.
“I think a larger (not “big box”) grocery store downtown would be an asset,” Guernsey said in an email. “Whether it is a chain or not is not important; what is important is that it be a quality grocer.”
The size limits might dampen the interest of grocery companies that otherwise might want to locate in the affluent city of 8,500 people. But Gig Harbor leaders say the zoning is the only way to balance growth while maintaining the quaint, small-town feel residents want.
“There are those of us that would like to turn back the clock to the 1950s, and there are those of us that would like it to be wide open,” said Gig Harbor Councilman Paul Kadzik.
“What we seem to be doing is allowing growth, but fairly controlled growth,” he said.
Kadzik spent 11 years on the city’s planning commission and was part of the committee that wrote the city’s design manual that governs development. He also sat on the design review board for nine years.
“There are probably pieces of land that are zoned to allow grocery stores, but developers don’t want to go there,” he said. “Grocery stores want to go where the people are.”
Many Gig Harbor households were forced to change their shopping habits quickly this year with the closures of Safeway and QFC. Both stores were long-time fixtures in the Olympic-Point Fosdick Drive corridor.
After a major expansion four years ago, Safeway closed and reopened under Haggen ownership in March. Bellingham-based Haggen bought several Safeway and Albertsons properties around the Puget Sound area.
It’s an understatement to say some in the community haven’t welcomed Haggen with open arms. The new store makes regular fodder on the Gig Harbor Town Talk Facebook page with more than 10,500 members. Complaints range from empty aisles to perceived higher prices to concerns about whether employees will have more hours cut or lose their jobs.
Now Haggen’s legal troubles, bankruptcy filing and the announced closure of several stores (including in Spanaway) have Gig Harbor shoppers speculating about its future there.
“This looks like a sinking ship,” Gig Harbor resident Keith Gerling said last week from the Haggen parking lot.
Inside the store, employees outnumbered customers.
“When I heard Haggen was coming in (last spring), I was really excited because I am vegan,” said Heidi Gerling, Keith’s wife.
So far she hasn’t been impressed, she said.
Fred Meyer’s affordability and variety have helped retain the Gerlings’ business, they said. They also shop at the Target store in north Gig Harbor, which added groceries a few years ago.
When asked about the future of the Gig Harbor store, Haggen spokeswoman Deborah Pleva said in an email to The News Tribune that the company would “evaluate potential sales/closures as part of its right-sizing strategy” during the bankruptcy process.
Across Point Fosdick Drive from Haggen, QFC shut its doors in mid-August.
But unlike Safeway’s permanent departure, QFC’s closure is temporary while the store undergoes a $6 million overhaul.
Company representatives promise the store will have unique features when it reopens in January, but they wouldn’t share details.
“This will be a concept that we, Fred Meyer or QFC, have never done before,” said spokeswoman Melinda Merrill, adding that the store would maintain a focus on giving “good value for our customer’s dollar.”
Fred Meyer and QFC are both owned by Cincinnati, Ohio-based Kroger.
Merrill said the dual ownership gives the company an unusual business position. It wants both stores to succeed, but they’re also competitors.
Fred Meyer is prepared to invest $22 million in a new store a short distance from QFC to the north of the intersection of Olympic and Point Fosdick drives, on the site of the former Fife RV lot.
Fred Meyer will remain in its current location east of the highway until the new store opens. It’s unknown what business or businesses will move in once Fred Meyer leaves.
Because of the city’s zoning limits, the new Gig Harbor store will not offer general merchandise in the superstore format that Fred Meyer offers in Tacoma and Port Orchard.
“It won’t look anything like the current (store), but it will be mostly a food store,” Merrill said.
Expanded offerings will include wider food selection including organic and some higher-end items. There also will be an expanded produce section and a growler bar for beer refills.
Permits have been granted for the project, but work hasn’t started. The company is looking for a general contractor.
If site preparation starts in the next couple months, a tentative opening date is the 2016 holiday season. Otherwise, the store won’t open until 2017, Merrill said.
Similar patience is required for shoppers looking for a new place to buy groceries in the north Gig Harbor area.
Town & Country Markets Inc. announced Friday that it wants to build a store at the corner of Borgen Boulevard and Harbor Hill Drive, but that it would open no sooner than 2018.
The Bainbridge Island-founded company specializes in fresh, perishable foods such as baked flatbreads and fish sold at a sushi counter.
Consumers want convenience, variety and affordability. We went to the three mid-size grocery stores in Gig Harbor on Friday for a snapshot of the cost of three basic staples: milk, eggs and butter.
Albertsons brand gallon nonfat milk: regularly $3.29, on sale $2.99
Albertsons brand dozen eggs, large AA: $3.19
Naturally Nested dozen eggs, large AA: $3.49
Darigold natural salted butter: $4.49
Home Dairies gallon nonfat milk: $2.79
Haggen brand dozen eggs, large AA: $2.99
Naturally Nested dozen eggs, large AA: $3.59
Darigold natural salted butter: $4.99
Fred Meyer brand gallon nonfat milk: regularly $3.09, on sale $2.79
Fred Meyer brand dozen eggs, large AA: $2.29
Naturally Nested dozen eggs, large AA: $3.59
Darigold natural salted butter: $4.29