When “Dinner for the Earth,” the precursor to Earth Fare, opened in 1975, it was a novelty in Asheville, N.C., which had never seen a natural food store before. More than 30 years later, Earth Fare fends off competition from larger natural and organic food chains, with 13 stores in four states and a major expansion on the drawing board.
Working with a new investment partner, private equity firm Monitor Clipper Partners, Earth Fare intends to open 20 or so stores in the next three to five years, in Charlotte, N.C., Augusta, Ga., and other markets, according to published reports.
Earth Fare's stores average 25,000 square feet, target smaller markets with affluent and educated customers, and generate $100 million in revenue, according to Monitor Clipper's website. According to Earth Fare, the stores offer fresh organic produce, a wine shop, a gourmet cheese shop with 250 varieties, fresh seafood delivered daily, fresh meats and poultry raised without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones — as well as made-from-scratch dishes and prepared meals in the delis. Earth Fare said it was the first supermarket chain to eliminate high fructose corn syrup from store shelves. The chain two years ago agreed to stop selling eggs from caged birds, a move that earned the company praise from animal rights groups. Earth Fare is also active in the agricultural community, and is known for sourcing local food items, as well as supporting efforts to preserve farmland.
This year, the company's flagship store in South Asheville introduced an upscale, gourmet meal planning and preparation service that features all-natural and organic ingredients. Chefs develop the recipes for dishes such as Korean sesame flank steak and ginger baked salmon with Asian cucumber salsa. Shoppers select from a menu of entrees, call the store to make a reservation, then come in to assemble the entrees, which can be reheated or frozen at home.
Earth Fare competes with Wild Oats Markets and Whole Foods Market stores, though it has at least one advantage over its bigger rivals — local ties, an industry observer noted.
“I think Earth Fare is an example of the opportunities that exist regionally throughout the country for small to medium chains to get ahead of Whole Foods or Wild Oats,” said Jay Jacobowitz, president of Retail Insights, a Brattleboro, Vt.-based consulting firm.