Uptown Market goes truly uptown

The renovated Uptown Market in Lower Queen Anne Credit: Ronald Holden

Sometimes, all you want from a market is stuff you can throw together for dinner — a steak or piece of fish, maybe. Sometimes, though, you want more, much more. Even here, in laid-back Seattle, we want to do all our shopping in one stop, soup to nuts, flowers to toilet paper. No obsessive scurrying to find just the right brie, the perfect cupcake, the ideal teapot; ideally, they’re all under the same, 50,000-square-foot roof, all with free (or validated) parking.

For grocers, it’s not easy to find that much space in the densely packed core of the city — they might have plenty of hungry customers, but no room to build a completely new store. Still, that hasn’t stopped Terry Halverson, CEO of Metropolitan Market. He started as a box boy on Queen Anne three decades ago and worked his way to the top of that store, ultimately buying it and then building the chain he runs today; this weekend he and his team are celebrating the renovation of his company’s Uptown store in Lower Queen Anne.

Americans spend only 10 percent of their income on food, the lowest percentage in the world. (The French and Italians spend 15 percent, the Chinese and Russians 25 percent, Indonesians 55 percent.) America’s 35,000 supermarkets collect $600 billion a year in revenue. “Away from home” food, mostly restaurant meals, accounts for another $400 billion, altogether a trillion-dollar industry that employs 3.5 million workers.

The giant of the grocery biz, Walmart, controls a quarter of the market (4,700 stores, nearly $300 billion in revenue), dwarfing Kroger’s $76 billion from 2,500 supermarkets (which operate under half a dozen names including Fred Meyer and QFC locally). In third place is our own Costco, which has only 527 stores but rakes in some $45 billion from food sales alone. Safeway comes in fourth, with about $41 billion from 1,750 stores.

In this dismal economy, restaurants are bleeding (and bleeping) themselves with price cuts, but grocery stores, by and large, are doing well. Profit margins at supermarket chains have doubled from a miniscule 1 percent of sales 20 years ago to almost 2 percent last year. In fact, stores have been able to spend money on significant upgrades to attract and keep shoppers who might otherwise scurry to specialty stores. It’s not a slam-dunk, but the analysts preach that tuning in to consumer data and retail partners’ needs leads to success. Gobbledy-gook, better interpreted on a local level, which leads directly to the region’s sole remaining locally owned player, Food Market Northwest, formerly Thriftway, now doing business as Metropolitan Market.

The locally-owned, six-store Metropolitan Market chain hasn’t been immune to the grocery wars. They cut an underperforming, 5-year-old outlet in Federal Way’s Dash Point Village at the end of 2009, but they’re moving full speed ahead with plans to open their first Eastside store, in Kirkland, later this year. And they’ve jumped back into the potentially lucrative (and hotly contested) central-city market, where the very density that creates a captive customer base requires innovative logistical adjustments.

Much as we all like those quaint mom-and-pop neighborhood bodegas and enjoy the convenience of 7-Eleven-style stores, it’s virtually impossible to operate a real “supermarket” at less than 10,000 square feet. The average American supermarket measures nearly 50,000 square feet these days with as much “live” selling space as a football field. One obstacle to building a store this big in an existing neighborhood: the large parking lot and easy street access required for those 40-foot semi-trailers to back into the store’s loading dock. (A modern supermarket carries 50,000 different items that have to be restocked every three weeks.) Even the new, 10,000-square-foot Fresh & Easy stores, owned by Britain’s Tesco chain, have so far all been sited in the suburbs of southern California and Arizona, where there’s plenty of room for the delivery trucks.

Consider the Seattle landscape: There’s the ultimate farmers market, at Pike Place, better known as the city’s number one tourist attraction than as a one-stop supermarket. To meet that particular need for downtowners, there’s a smallish Kress IGA a couple of blocks away. And two Safeways, one at the top, one at the bottom of Queen Anne. Whole Foods opened at Westlake Avenue North and Denny Way three years ago and introduced Seattle to the “whole paycheck” concept of luxury organic shopping (though, to be fair, they’ve done a great job of everyday pricing as well with their “365” line). And QFC followed suit six months later with a similar new store at Fifth Avenue North and Mercer Street.

Also at the top of Queen Anne stands a tiny Trader Joe’s, scrappy and beloved by neighborhood moms. Inside, it’s like a shack at a beachcomber resort with crowded aisles, pre-packed vegetables, staff in Hawaiian shirts. The 350 Trader Joe’s stores offer no promotions or incentives, with plenty of proprietary products at low prices (most famously, Two-Buck Chuck). The chain does $8 billion worth of business annually, over $2 million per store. Trader Joe’s, for all its laid-back left-coast folksiness, is owned by Theo Albrecht, a reclusive billionaire who lives in Essen, Germany.

Used to be, there was a Larry’s Market in the area as well, in the former Hansen Baking Company at First and Mercer. Larry’s collapsed four years ago, and Metropolitan (with a nearby store at the top of Queen Anne about to be torn down for redevelopment) stepped in.

But the Larry’s look, a sort of upscale Costco warehouse, didn’t match the new Whole Foods experience, with warm lighting, the abundance of a European-style outdoor market, and plenty of fancier, organic choices. And with the planned reconstruction of its existing store unexpectedly stalled, Metropolitan had to do something. Without closing the store, the company undertook a complex remodeling project — they won’t comment on the budget — that they hope will lure Lower Queen Anne shoppers back from the QFC, the Whole Foods and the TJ’s.

Metropolitan’s renovated, 43,000-square-foot Uptown store opened last week to enthusiastic crowds lining up for free samples from suppliers like Salumi, Gelatiamo, and Cupcake Royale. Inside, it looks like Metropolitan’s flagship store in the Admiral district of West Seattle: There’s an expanded line of organic products, a carving station in the deli, more local, artisan and farmstead cheeses, and a “wellness and nutrition” department for shoppers with dainty skin and delicate digestion. And for oenophiles, a selection of 1,300 bottles, staffed by trained wine stewards.

The hoopla at the foot of the counterbalance continues through mid-February as fickle, cost-conscious shoppers are targeted with mailers, coupons, free food and in-store offers like a “Bring a Bachelor” mixer. The result, so far, is that aisles have been crowded with overflowing shopping carts. The average American family shops twice a week and spends $100 a week on groceries; Uptown just wants its share, but they’ll have to fight for it.

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