When Santoni's announced last week that it was closing its remaining grocery store after more than 80 years in the business, the news sent something of a shiver through Michele Speaks-March.
Not only did she grow up near the old Santoni's in Dundalk, she herself was doing what owner Rob Santoni said was no longer viable: run a small, family-owned grocery in the city.
Santoni said the city's bottle tax is the sole reason for closing the Highlandtown grocery store his family opened in 1930 — it adds a nickel to the price of every bottle or can, something shoppers can easily avoid by driving a few extra miles and minutes over the county line.
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1900 North Broadway, Baltimore, MD 21213, USA
3800 East Lombard Street, Baltimore, MD 21224, USA
Others, though, including the tax's creator, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, have disputed that, pointing to other factors such as the still-struggling economy and greater competition.
It does seem to me Baltimore has never had more options for groceries — from old standbys like Giant and Safeway to newcomers like Harris Teeter and specialty stores like Whole Foods and all the Asian, Hispanic and other ethnic markets that have emerged.
But stores, especially well-stocked ones, tend to cluster where the money is, leaving vast "food deserts" in much of the city. By one estimate, one in five Baltimoreans lives in a food desert.
I was wondering what all this means for small, locally owned grocery stores — could they continue to compete with the chains? Could they provide the oasis that so many neighborhoods need?
Speaks-March hopes so. She and her husband, Erich March, opened a grocery store about seven months ago at the corner of Broadway and North Avenue, with the goal of bringing nutritious food to a neighborhood where processed and unhealthy fare was more the norm.
As you can tell from its name, Apples & Oranges Fresh Market, the store's emphasis isn't on cases of soda — meaning the bottle tax blamed for felling Santoni's hasn't "risen to a level of concern" for her.
"We don't carry any Coke or Pepsi," Speaks-March said. "That would be counter to what we do."
Instead, she faces other challenges — getting her customers, many of whom are from the neighborhood and come in on foot rather than by car, to choose the wholesome fruits, vegetables and meats she stocks.
Small grocers have to have a niche, she believes, because there's no way to match the price and selection offered by the chains.
"We can't benefit from the economy of scale like they do," she said. "You can't go head-to-head with them. You're have to figure out something else to do."
Apples & Oranges does a "robust" breakfast and lunch trade with customers from the nearby District Court and other workplaces, and it has expanded its catering operation, Speaks-March said. That helps support the main mission of the store, which is to provide fresh food to residents in nearby neighborhoods, many of whom pay with food stamps.
Despite a bit of "backlash" from customers who want fried chicken and other less healthful fare — the store purposely doesn't have a fryer — she said her customers are starting to come around to what the couple is trying to do.
"It's not just about food; it's about jobs," said Speaks-March, whose store has 16 employees. "It's putting something in the neighborhood."
They know their store, and they haven't even made a profit yet. Speaks-March says they're hanging in there with good credit and the fact that her husband has another source of income, his family's well-established funeral home business.
Knowing how slim a margin food stores operate on, she would be the last to criticize a fellow grocer, particularly Santoni, whom she calls "a good corporate citizen." Back when she was the city's parks and recreation spokeswoman, she worked with Santoni on the virtual grocery store program, in which residents could place orders to his store on computers in a couple of library branches, and they would be delivered there for free.
That program is on hold with Santoni's closing, and it remains to be seen whether another grocer will step in. That alone makes you hope Santoni is successful in selling the Highlandtown store to another grocer.
As for Speaks-March, she's cheered by a recent uptick in sales and hopes more customers — whether they're shopping for their families or buying a deli tray for a workplace lunch — buy local.
"We've all identified that grocery stores are important in neighborhoods," she said. "We're not asking for a grant. We're saying: Run your purchases through our store so we can sustain our neighborhoods."