Emily Opila / The Morning Call – People living in center city Allentown’s Seventh Street neighborhood will soon have another alternative to hiking to the suburbs for milk and bread.
Supremo Food Market, a 25,000-square-foot grocery store, is set to open this fall in the long-vacant former Sears building, a white elephant that has troubled community organizers in the newly bustling Seventh Street business district for several years.
The store will offer a variety of fresh produce catering to the area’s Hispanic residents and hire locals for up to 80 full- and part-time jobs, owner Eddie Trujillo said this week.
Supremo would be only the second grocery store in the middle of center city, an area now served by local grocer Little Apple Market and several other stores on the edges of the neighborhood.
Trujillo’s New Jersey-based chain, Supremo Food Market, caters to urban residents, particularly those in Hispanic or black neighborhoods, he said. Trujillo owns a dozen other grocery stores under both the Supremo and Shop N’ Bag brands in Philadelphia and cities across New Jersey.
Allentown is ideal for a new Supremo location, Trujillo said. The demographics are right — 65,000 Hispanic residents live near the store — and a study conducted by the chain shows that those residents are underserved by existing grocery stores, he said.
Alan Jennings, executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley and a proponent of urban grocery stores, said Allentown needs a supermarket to serve the city’s broader population.
“If you go out to Cedar Crest [Boulevard] and Tilghman Street, you can swing a dead cat by its tail and hit five grocery stores,” Jennings said. “At Seventh Street and Hamilton Street, you’d hit maybe a couple bodegas and an IGA.”
Supremo stores place a heavy emphasis on produce, Trujillo said, drilling down to the different cultures within the Hispanic community. At Supremo’s store in Plainfield, N.J., offerings cater to the area’s large South American population, he said. In Irvington, N.J., shoppers can buy Haitian specialties.
“We’re not a Wegmans … but I guarantee when you walk into my store you’re going to feel good about shopping there,” Trujillo said.
At 25,000 to 30,000 square feet, Supremo stores are smaller than many suburban supermarkets — Wegmans stores range from 80,000 to 140,000 square feet — but they are larger than many urban community grocery stores.
Renovations, including asbestos removal, are underway to give the Seventh Street building a modern appearance. The market is expected to open in October on the first floor and basement of its three-story building.
“This is not a rich area,” Trujillo said of the Seventh Street neighborhood. “But we all like nice things. And because we have bigger buying power, we’re able to give pricing to compete with anybody.”
That strategy should suit Supremo well in an urban environment like Allentown, said Jeff Green, a Phoenix-based retail strategist. Larger grocery retailers have done little to cater to urban markets, leaving plenty of untapped potential for grocers who sell to city dwellers, he said.
Independent grocers have served cities for years, but with little competition, prices for fresh products like produce have traditionally been high, Green said. The buying power of a chain could keep prices down, he said.
Supremo’s emphasis on targeted merchandise, known as “micro-merchandising,” should also play well in a Hispanic market, Green said. Major chains find it difficult to micro-merchandise individual stores, and few small chains have done it effectively, he said.
Supremo will add to Allentown’s grocery options, but it will also help Seventh Street developers solve a long-standing problem of what to do with the former Sears building at Seventh and Allen streets, said Peter Lewnes, Seventh Street’s Main Street manager.
Built in the 1940s, the building has been vacant for the last four to five years when last tenant Rite Aid closed its doors. In 2012, there was hope that the building might be demolished to make way for a new Rite Aid, but local businesses and organizers fought back against the proposal’s “suburban” design.
Foot traffic on the corner has dropped drastically since the building went dark, Lewnes said.
“We’ve missed that corner being vital,” he said. “The investment on the street is huge.”
While community organizers like Lewnes have welcomed the market, concerns have been raised about its location. Longtime fixture Little Apple Market is immediately next door to the proposed store.
Lewnes said businesses on Seventh Street — an area that has flourished organically in recent years — have proved that similar stores and restaurants can operate next to one another. Restaurants sit next to other restaurants and barber shops do business next to other barber shops.
“We have lots of corner markets,” Lewnes said. “They cater to different nationalities and ethnicities. Seventh Street has 25,000 cars every day, as well as a huge neighborhood population. We’re pretty confident that everyone can co-exist.”
The owner of Little Apple Market could not be reached for comment.
Trujillo said he has faced similar situations when opening other supermarkets.
“If you take care of your own business, you can’t worry about other people,” he said. “There’s going to be other grocery stores coming to Allentown. It’s only a matter of time.”