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Mark Retzloff on Alfalfa's Return to Boulder

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old-alfalfas-logo.jpgMention Alfalfa’s Market to Boulder residents and the superlatives flow: Best, hippest, most helpful and friendliest are part of everyone’s memories. The 11-store chain based in Boulder was absorbed by Wild Oats after a 1996 merger, but the reputation lingers.

There was even a period when Whole Foods — which in turn bought out Wild Oats in 2007 — considered restoring the Alfalfa’s banner to the site of the original store at 1651 Broadway. Such is the power of Alfalfa’s.

“A lot of people still call it Alfalfa’s, even though it’s gone through two name changes,” said Mark Retzloff, co-founder of the Alfalfa’s chain and one of the three guys who plan on bringing the operation back to life in the very location where it started out back in 1983.

Retzloff, along with business partners Barney Feinblum (of Celestial Seasoning tea fame) and Hugo van Seenus, won rights to the Alfalfa’s name as part of Whole Foods Market’s ongoing divestiture of more than two dozen former Wild Oats locations, as ordered by federal regulators. The trio’s A-M Holdings LLC beat out Topco Associates for the intellectual property. Retzloff told me this afternoon by phone that he’s missed the retail scene, and bid eagerly for the Alfalfa’s name.

“The Alfalfa’s legacy is still very, very strong here Boulder. The name has a lot of equity. For a number of years it was named the best supermarket in town. It’s known as a place where a lot of community events were initiated that are still going on today.

The team has plans to update the 32,000-square-foot space that is currently occupied by a Whole Foods. That store will close by July 4th weekend, with the reborn Alfalfa’s to open later this year or in early 2011. Retzloff told us that 24,000 square feet will be reserved for retail, with an emphasis on fresh foods, local and regional items, in addition to community spirit.

“Our goal is to differentiate ourselves. A big part of that is being much more community-oriented, being a community-focused store,” he said.

The business plan may be clear, but times are different. Retzloff acknowledges that competition is much stiffer these days — the local Safeway store sports the chain’s popular “lifestyle” layout (see example here) and King Soopers offers plenty of natural and organic items. There are other natural foods retailers, as well. Whole Foods, Sprouts Farmers Market and Sunflower Farmers Market all have stores in the Boulder metro area.

On the plus side, Retzloff notes that younger residents have gone big into health, wellness and sustainability. The demographics favor a retailer who can respond to their needs, which includes a heavy emphasis on social media.

He plans on creating a special “community manager” position to maintain and update the store’s online accounts.

“We’re going to have a full-time person on board, who we call the community manager, who will be overseeing our communication on Twitter and Facebook, and blogging, in order to maintain customer relationships that way,” Retzloff told us.

The local papers crowed when it was announced Alfalfa’s was returning to Boulder. It’ll be interesting to watch this new incarnation of the famed chain reclaim its top spot in the city’s natural/organic retailing scene.

(Logo courtesy of A-M Holdings LLC)

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