Ukrop's has cornered the grocery business in Richmond. Now it's tackling the corner market. 

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According to family lore, when Joe Ukrop opened his first grocery in 1937 he had hoped to call it Joe's. But there already was a Joe's in Richmond at the time. So he named his store Ukrop's.

Today, that other Joe's is long gone, while the family-operated Ukrop's Super Markets Inc. owns 27 stores in Central Virginia. Its innovations in everything from prepared foods to customer-card discounts have made it an industry pioneer, while its trademark birthday cakes and White House rolls have embedded themselves in Richmond's culture.

But that first flicker of Joe Ukrop's dream — a small neighborhood market called Joe's — was not forgotten. This week it's coming to life.

On Aug. 1, epicures and the curious will get their first taste of Joe's Market, the brand-new Ukrop's offshoot on Libbie Avenue that is an upscale gourmet and natural-foods grocery.

And while many customers have come to rely on the cachet of the Ukrop's name, Joe's Market is trumpeting an identity all its own.

"We had been curious to try a small neighborhood store for some time," says Scott Ukrop, vice president of marketing.

Joe's Market is a flagship for the company's new design, Ukrop says, and could be replicated elsewhere if it is a success.

"It is designed to be quick-filling with a heavy emphasis on specialty foods," Ukrop says, not a place he expects many people to do all the weekly shopping.

Ukrop says the Libbie Avenue location is perfect and allows Ukrop's to put in one of its pharmacies in the near West End. The Carytown and Village Shopping Center stores don't have space for pharmacies. It also will have space for a First Market Bank, the company's joint venture in neighborhood banking.

The 12,000-square-foot building at 400 Libbie Ave. once was home to a beloved neighborhood grocery, Lukhard's Fine Foods. Lukhard's closed five years ago. Nonetheless, neighbors still refer to the site as Lukhard's, never as Rite Aid, the chain drugstore that replaced it.

Joe's has hired a quasi-famous Richmond chef, Michael Hall — of The Butlery, None Such Place, The Vine and The Frog and the Redneck — to be in charge of recipes and prepared foods. Hall's highly visible prep station is placed in Joe's where cash registers are in other stores, right up front.

"We want to wow people when they come in, and that' s why it's exactly 18 feet from the door to the case," Hall says. Much of the prepared food will be displayed on large slabs of granite.

"It's an international grocery," Hall says. "It's my job to come up with ethnic and innovative dishes." There will be numerous prepared foods like paninis and wraps and gourmet items by the pound, reminiscent of the Butler's Pantry: rotisserie chicken, lamb and Cornish game hen, even Hall's signature crab cakes, though he says he'll call them Joe's crab cakes from now on.

"We're even going to have some organ meat," he says, "foie gras and sweetbreads." And for those who want to do the cooking themselves, the store offers natural and organic produce, fresh meat and seafood.

Joe's Market offers an array of fancy, often high-dollar products, many of them displayed on sleek black shelves with labels perfectly turned outward. There will be a coffee bar and an olive bar with 18 varieties. (Who knew there were so many kinds of olives?) Folks will be encouraged to pour their own olive oil and honey.

Some of the stranger items in stock, says Hall, are the Alaskan-salmon hot dogs in the freezer case. He pulls a package out and shakes his head. "I've never seen that," he says with a laugh. "I simply can't believe it."

The concept for Joe's came from visits to specialty stores out West and along the East Coast — Trader Joe's (which also had eyed the Libbie site for a store), Dean & Deluca, Sutton Place, Fresh Fields (which tanked in Richmond in 1993 after only nine months largely because of a meat scare) and, especially, EatZi's.

Ken Gassman, a longtime retail analyst with Davenport & Co., says the Ukrop's hybrid effort represents a growing trend for national chains. Home Depot, for instance, recently launched a smaller specialty venture called Villages Hardware.

"There seems to be a trend back to neighborhood shopping," says Gassman. And that is causing chains like Kroger, which recently broke ground on a central-Richmond location off Leigh Street, and Giant Food to look anew at building stores in central cities and downtown.

Gassman says what drives these trends are aging baby boomers, who soon will make up 30 percent of the population. "They are more likely to be pampered, they want one-stop shopping, and because they're getting older, they're concerned about health now more than ever," Gassman says. "And what Ukrop's is doing is testing this."

For example, Tony Droppleman, resident pharmacist at Joe's, says his operation will focus on health maintenance. He plans health screenings and vaccinations at the store. Prescriptions can be delivered free in a brand-new Volkswagon Beetle purchased especially for the job.

What won't be on the menu is beer, wine or cigarettes — Joe's Market won't sell any of them.

Unlike Ukrop's stores, Joe's won't have any courtesy clerks to carry your groceries to the car "unless you need them," says Hall. But just like its parent operations the store will be closed on Sundays.

Hall promises a tasteful shopping experience. "While you're shopping I guarantee you'll be munching," he says. "People are going to think they're not in Richmond


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