Publix opened with much fanfare, yesterday, at University Commons. It follows the opening last week of Walmart at the same location. More stores will open soon including a UT bookstore and Great Clips, as well as others. It’s been a long time coming and that it happened at all seems improbable, at best.
The location on the western border of the UT campus once hosted the Fulton Bellows industrial site and because of that history, the soil on the location was deemed a brownfield. Basically the land was considered too dangerous for human use, making it not a likely development site. The city successfully navigated that problem with a mix of public and private funding and a design that did not disturb the contaminated soil: They built a parking garage over it and built the stores above that. Of course, that’s also a more urban model, which is helpful.
So, with the opening of Publix does downtown have a grocery store? Well, it’s complicated. The store is actually no closer to most of downtown than, say, the Food City on Western Avenue. It certainly can’t take the place of the convenience and commitment to quality food a downtown resident might find at Just Ripe. So, the answer is “no,” right?
Well, with the re-routing of the Vol Line Trolley, downtown residents are able, for the first time, to easily get groceries and return home without getting the car out of the garage or paying for a city bus ride. It’s a perfect idea which I appreciate very much. For me, it’s the first time the Trolley seems like a practical and useful mode of transportation. It goes a place I can use. So, in another respect, the new grocery store, combined with the Trolley line, does go a long way toward filling downtown resident’s need for more extensive access to groceries than we have enjoyed in the past.
Here I’ll say a word about Walmart, which is, after all, a part of the package. It will be useful to have access to staples we otherwise have a hard time securing downtown, such as – my friend Katie pointed out – air filters. It’s a fully stocked Walmart, including Walmart food with the exception of fresh items which it will not stock due to the relationship with Publix. Urban Woman and I rarely use Walmart, avoiding it whenever possible, where we used to spend hundreds of dollars a month there, but I’m sure it will be useful for many of us.
I took the trolley to Publix yesterday to explore a bit. My excursion started with a 30 minute wait for the trolley, where it is supposed to run every ten minutes. When it arrived, I suspected the problem was related to unexpectedly heavy use. It was full, with probably thirty or more riders, several of whom had to stand. There are four trolleys, I believe, that run the route and I’m guessing that needs to be more.
It was a mix of people. As always, there were homeless people on the trolley. I stood for half the ride, then sat beside a college student who conversed comfortably with a person who was likely homeless. It was an interesting mix of black and white, young and old, homeless and more affluent. A woman named Anne struck up a conversation with me as she disembarked, commenting on the mix of passengers. She’s new to the city from Canton, Ohio and drove in from west Knoxville to the Publix, but decided to take the trolley loop just to see a little of downtown. I think she’ll visit, again. She mentioned bringing sandwiches to hand out on the trolley, which seems a lovely idea.
So, the primary question on my mind as I disembarked and took the escalator up to the Publix was how much to they offer in the way of organic foods? Urban Woman and I loved Publix when we lived in Florida, but that was many years ago. We were twenty and a good meal to us was splitting a 25 cent can of Publix brand soup. Our tastes have changed slightly. They’ve particularly evolved thanks to Charlotte Tolley and Kristen Faerber who, through the Market Square Farmers’ Market and Just Ripe have helped us understand – or remember – what “real” food is like. So, we are a good bit more choosy.
Just as Publix was excellent for that other era in our life, I have to give it very high marks after my visit, yesterday. I’m sure the employees will ease back over time, but they were out in front of the product, offering samples, introducing themselves and the food. It was quite impressive. The store was pretty busy, but an employees always seemed ready when I had a question. An assistant manager stood at the door introducing himself by name and asking the names of most of the people who entered.
The store is very large, includes a cafe, bakery and seafood department. One corner is devoted to ethnic foods, including such pretty specific categories as “West Indies” and “Caribbean Hispanic,” all helpfully labeled. That’s where I found Mexican Coke ($1.39 for the small bottle). Fresh sushi is made daily and actual butchers are cutting meat. The seafood looked good.
What of organic? You can see from the photographs that it is very plentiful and clearly marked. It’s also helpfully located at the right end of the product section. For example, if you find strawberries, look to the right-hand side of the strawberry display and you’ll see the organic strawberries. Most fruits and vegetables has an organic component. I found a small selection of grass-fed beef, though there were other “organic” selections. For the meat to be organic, the animal cannot have been given hormones or antibiotics.
So, what’s my conclusion? Will we shift our business to Publix? Well, we’ll likely follow our same pattern, which is to buy what is available downtown, downtown. The Farmers’ Market and Just Ripe are always our starting points and that won’t change. Our second stop for food is usually Earth Fare and Trader Joe’s with Three Rivers Market and Fresh Market mixed in. Our seafood comes from the Shrimp Dock and that won’t change. It’s the next level down, for us, that will change. Food City probably just lost us. We can get the things we need at Publix, probably in organic form and not have to move the car. Pretty sweet.
So, as much as I don’t care for Walmart, I think it is a pretty remarkable development victory to change a poison field into something helpful and productive. We still need a mid-sized urban grocery store downtown, but for where we are now, this is pretty good. Next, we’ll need to add more trolleys to the route, which is a good problem to have.