A new Southeast Raleigh grocery store aims to fill a need for fresh, affordable food in a neighborhood where residents were left with few grocery options after a Kroger closed two years ago.
Save-A-Lot, part of a chain of more than 1,300 discount grocery stores, opened Wednesday in the former Kroger building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Variety Wholesalers, headed by former state budget director Art Pope, owns the 18,000-square-foot store, along with a Roses store in the same building.
Shoppers toured Save-A-Lot after a grand-opening ceremony Wednesday, searching out deals on fresh produce, meat, dairy and other foods.
They found an 8-pound bag of red delicious apples for $2.99, a box of elbow macaroni for 87 cents, a 2-pound pack of boneless pork chops for $6.55 and a gallon of whole milk for $3.75.
Lisa Toon, 51, said she’s relieved to see a grocery store return to the shopping center. Since Kroger closed, she’s had to drive past the empty building to get to the nearest grocery store and hasn’t been able to find groceries as cheaply as she would like.
“It will make life a whole lot easier,” Toon said as she and her husband, Ledell, pushed a cart with chicken, paper towels and eggs.
In late 2012, Kroger announced it would pull out of the location because of declining sales. Residents and elected officials said the move was a major loss and worried about how it would affect the neighborhood.
They especially had concerns about those without cars who have had to rely on several buses to get to the nearest full-service grocery stores about a mile away.
Of the 4,000 households within a mile of the store, 25 percent earn less than $15,000 a year and more than half earn less than $35,000.
The median household income in Wake County is about $66,000, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Variety Wholesalers, which also owns the Maxway brand, bought the Kroger building last summer for $2.57 million, prompting public criticism from some community leaders who dislike Pope’s support for conservative causes.
The company has come under fire before because of Pope’s political leanings. Critics charge that he supports policies that hurt the low-income people who shop at his stores.
Some people demanded better pay and working conditions at a protest outside a Durham Maxway last summer. The N.C. Association of Educators called for a boycott of the stores in 2011.
At the new store’s opening Wednesday, Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley, a Democrat from Raleigh, said bringing healthy food to Southeast Raleigh is not a political issue.
“Guess what? When you’re hungry you don’t say are you a Democrat or a Republican,” she said. “Some issues exceed politics.”
In the state legislature, Holley has pushed to bring attention to the issue of “food deserts,” communities where families don’t have easy access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.
Pope said a multipronged approach is needed to help struggling families.
“In order to provide healthy meals for our families, in order to stop and minimize the number of food deserts and to serve our community, we need government initiatives, we need charitable help from food banks and food pantries and yes, you need business investment in the community,” he said told the audience at Wednesday’s opening.
Holley said the new store also is important for the economic development it could help spur in the area by adding jobs and anchoring the shopping center.
The Save-A-Lot employs 27 people, and the Roses employs 70.
Variety Wholesalers officials have said the pairing of the Roses with a Save-A-Lot should draw more people to the shopping center, heading off the problems Kroger had in that location.
Customer Sharon Paige, 60, showed up to shop for groceries before the ribbon across the front of the building was even cut. She’s looking forward to buying household items at Roses, then heading next door to Save-A-Lot.
“You can do everything in one step,” said Paige, who said she may even walk to the store from her home in Chavis Heights.
Joseph Brown, who lives in Apollo Heights, said the loss of Kroger was a problem, but he said Save-A-Lot will have to prove it is worthy of his support.
“I go where I can get the best price,” Brown said.
Store officials this week also made two donations to local nonprofits. The Salvation Army shopped free for $2,000 worth of groceries to help replenish its food pantry shelves, and the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle received $2,000 in gift cards to support its work.