Wegmania, lines at the opening of Southern Season, lines at the closing of Southern Season, bated breath at the sale of Martin’s, Aldi curiosity, Whole Foods countdowns.
In a city that’s unusually interested in grocery stores, Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market has led a quiet revolution. The store has put a focus on local produce and products, and been instrumental in helping Richmond food entrepreneurs get a foothold in a competitive industry.
“We’re talking to Harris Teeter now, and they’re asking for $16,000-$24,000 per item just to get on the shelf,” says Mike Woitach of Confluence Coffee Co. “They often want a free fill — a free case for each store. The whole system is pretty prohibitive for new products.”
But Woitach’s nitrogen-infused, cold-brew coffee drinks had their Richmond debut on Ellwood Thompson’s shelves at no cost. “Ellwood helped us get that credibility we needed to continue to build the number of stores,” he says. “It was an anchor point.”
Confluence is now sold in roughly 100 stores in six states.
Walk the aisles of Ellwood Thompson’s with owner Rick Hood, and you’ll think he’s visiting old friends. He points to eggs from Edgewood Farms in Rockingham County, which expanded its flock of chickens to accommodate the grocery’s demand.
There’s the Nettie’s Naturally line of dessert products by Richmonder Lynette Potgieter — the grocery worked with her to develop a line of snack bars for runners.
And demand for Old Church Creamery’s dairy products from Manquin has led to the farm’s expansion and moved it into a higher bracket of government standards.
“Big grocery stores don’t have the time, or it doesn’t work for them, to deal with the small owners,” Hood says. “It’s too much trouble.”
He says the push started about 10 years ago, when consumers’ focus on organic expanded to include local products. “It’s the perfect fit for a small store like us,” he says, “thinking about how we best live in our community.”
Founded in 1989, the store maintains a 100-mile radius designation for products labeled as local, in addition to storewide standards on pesticides, genetic modification and other food valuations. Encouraging famers and food producers within that area helps the market grow its selection.
“We would never sell shelf space,” says Dan Lamprecht, Ellwood’s director of purchasing, naming a grocery chain with Richmond locations that charges promotional fees for nearly every slot in the store. He says $5,000 will get your product on the shelf — “and that’s not even at eye level.”
Lamprecht estimates that Ellwood Thompson’s fields calls from local producers three or four times a week. “We’ll meet with them and see what they have,” he says. “Then we help work through the kinks. … It’s mentoring and gauging what we perceive they still need to do.”
He says the store currently sells 758 items from local vendors, which accounts for almost 12 percent of its sales by volume.
Chief executive Shane Emmett of Health Warrior, a local company that makes chia bars, also credits the store for helping businesses like his get off the ground.
“When we started the company,” Emmett says, “we were very aware of the cost of going to large retailers without knowing if actual humans would want to buy the product over and over again off the shelf.”
Hood met and spent a lot of time with Health Warrior. “One thing Rick does an amazing job of is encouraging companies to come in and explain themselves in the store,” Emmett says. “Five years later I can appreciate that opportunity more.”
The focus on local products also factors heavily into the produce section and Ellwood’s own prepared food.
“Local farmers typically can’t grow to the price point that giant farms can,” Lamprecht says. “So we will pay the higher price to support the local farmer and really we don’t usually pass that price on. It’s a conscious business decision.”
Last week, MSN named Ellwood Thompson’s the best grocery store in Virginia, and Hood says it offers a healthy alternative to chain stores. “We never want to give anyone the sense that we’re saying that you’ve got to do it [this] way,” he says. “People have got to lean into their own dietary habits.”