Downtown Grocers See Growth Opportunity

New Orleans City Business – Donald Rouse and his lead architect, John Williams, trudged through the gutted remains of the former Sewell Cadillac dealership on Baronne Street, future home of a new Rouses Market.

Donald Rouse and his lead architect, John Williams, trudged through the gutted remains of the former Sewell Cadillac dealership on Baronne Street, future home of a new Rouses Market.

The headlights of earthmovers plowing rocks cut through the darkness, providing a spotlight for the two men to describe their vision, what will be the first major grocery store to open in the Warehouse and Central Business districts.

“This is where they will make all of the prepared foods,” Williams said, pointing to a bare cement corridor. “Over there is where there will be a large seafood department and sushi bar.”

The downtown Rouse’s supermarket will be like no other store in the chain, Rouse said. It is a complete redesign, a footprint that will never be used again.

“This gives us an opportunity to do some unique things in a historic building,” Rouse said. “We looked at inner city stores around the country and found the best things we liked. This is a large enough property to do everything we wanted to do. I just love the location and neighborhood.”

Rouse purchased the former site of Sewell Cadillac in May and began construction three weeks ago. The 40,000-square-foot store with 28,000 square feet of retail space and three floors of parking is expected to open by October.

The project is partially funded by state and federal historic tax credits.

Half a mile away in the French Quarter, another grocery store operator’s dreams are coming true. Owner Shelba Hatfield stood among the empty metal shelves inside the brightly lit Verti Marte. It has been eight months since a fire severely damaged the popular 24-hour deli and grocery.

If all goes according to plan, Hatfield hopes to reopen Saturday. According to her loyal following, it can’t happen too soon.

“See that? That happens all day long,” Hatfield said, nodding toward the front door where a man has his faced pressed against the glass, smiling and waving.

Her son, Sam Hatfield, said they can’t keep the door open during renovations because “people would keep coming in wanting to talk. That’s how passionate they are about this little place. People keep asking when we’re opening, calling us an institution. We knew people loved it but we didn’t think to this extent.”

Shelba has been so focused on opening the store she didn’t know anything about the impending arrival of Rouses in the Warehouse District. But she’s not worried it will take away from her business, and Rouse sees no reason for her to be concerned.

The small groceries in the French Quarter exist in a universe almost entirely their own, relying exclusively on pedestrian traffic from tourists and locals, Rouse said. He operates his own version of a corner grocery at 701 Royal St., and he doesn’t expect the new store to impact its sales.

The stores most likely to be impacted are the Rouses on Tchoupitoulas Street and Carrollton Avenue, but Rouse said their sales are so high they can afford to take a hit.

“It will actually benefit them because it will take some pressure off,” he said.

Rouses Market is in the midst of one of the largest growth periods in company history. In addition to the Warehouse District store, it’s completing a massive renovation of the Tchoupitoulas location and about to begin renovating Carrollton and Franklin Avenue sites.

“One of the top guys from Whole Foods recently visited our Tchoupitoulas store to see the remodeling. He said, ‘Wow,’ and just shook his head,” Rouse said.

Outside of New Orleans, a new Rouses recently opened in Lafourche Parish with a second slated for February. Construction on a store in Lafayette near the Cajun Dome is under way.

Rouse considers the Baronne Street location the crown jewel of all this activity.

“He’s really making a statement with this store,” Williams said. “It’s his baby.”

Hatifield’s daughter, Tara Olsen, used the same term to describe what Verti Marte means to her mother.

“It really is her baby,” Olsen said. “We were kind of hoping she wouldn’t reopen after the fire. My mom is 72 years old and we were hoping she would take some time out for herself. But there was no doubt, not with my mom’s spirit. On the car ride home (on the night of the fire), she turned to me and said, ‘I have to reopen. This is what I do.'”

By Richard A. Webster, Staff Writer