Mirage or solution: Can Falls City Market help Louisville’s food desert?

Downtown residents and workers have long clamored for a convenient grocery store. Last week, Falls City Market opened inside the new Omni Hotel — a street-level, full-service grocery store on the north side of the 30-story, $315 million development. Well, not a grocery, but an, um, “urban lifestyle market.” Presumably “urban lifestyle market” is shorthand for “sipping a craft beer while purchasing hand-jarred pickles via a Square reader.”  Falls City Market does present an exciting, inviting, Dwell Magazine-worthy space with friendly service — a public-facing environment for hotel guests and downtown visitors that Louisville can be proud of, while providing fresh food and a noteworthy inventory of local products for middle-class-and-above workers downtown. What Falls City Market is not: an impactful, end-game solution to the serious food desert issue in central Louisville. And nor should it be: This market is an Omni property, a facet of this new development that aligns with the Omni brand experience. That some civic leaders and the media have framed it as addressing the actual nutrition gap is a coy PR move. Metro Councilwoman Barbara Sexton-Smith, on the other hand, is more honest in admitting that “this is a model, an urban laboratory.”

“I think this is a starting point,” Sexton-Smith told LEO. “And, what I’m hoping will happen, is that other retail grocery operations will take a look at this and see that this is a successful model and it’s working in this particular neighborhood, and then maybe we modify the concept a little bit and we move west, with the Beecher Terrace Choice Neighborhood redevelopment, I see a great opportunity for a Falls City Market, or something like that, to be built west of Ninth Street. We may modify and take into consideration what the neighbors in that neighborhood want in their grocery.”

Louisville’s food deserts are the stuff of legend among policy wonks and civil planning enthusiasts. Recent attempts at addressing the West End’s food desert — The Foodport, the Walmart development — all died. Two other stores near the much-missed Second Street Kroger shuttered during the same timespan, leaving a wide swath of the population-dense city center without a reliable place to buy affordable groceries. This is the case for a lot of the urban core: neighborhoods without a grocery store, or underserved by this sort of retail — think Downtown, Phoenix Hill, Butchertown and Old Louisville, dotted with a few bodegas offering limited hours and varying quantities, with equally-varying quality, of fresh and nutritious food.

So it makes sense that Mayor Greg Fischer and the city of Louisville, with the bargaining chip of public investment, pushed the Omni to include a grocery store that would become the Falls City Market in its mixed-use plan. The city’s agreement for a grocery store said the Omni would provide a groundfloor grocery to mean “a high quality, full service urban grocery store selling prepared and unprepared food, other consumables and grocery items,” a city official told CJ in January 2017.

Now, a year later, the wisdom of letting out-of-town private enterprise address the deeply rooted effects of redlining and 20th century white flight that create phenomena like massive food deserts remains to be seen.

Falls City Market does have the potential to fulfill an important, much-needed niche, especially considering the multiple bus routes and Lyfts nearby. But filling a niche and properly meeting needs are not necessarily the same thing. Can this “urban lifestyle market” have an impact on the gaping food desert in the central financial district and adjacent communities? Could its ability to do so spark future investments, as Sexton-Smith suggested? Which is actually more important to the city? Those questions have caused a lot of conflicting opinions.

“It’s about the investment,” said urban planner Cassia Herron. “The city invested a lot of money in the Omni, so they could force the Omni to do something. I think it’s a marketable thing, for the city government to say, ‘Yes, finally we got a grocery store.’ I don’t know if it’s going to be scaleable. It depends on how successful it is, but it’s certainly not a response to the food crisis for the folks who live downtown. I live in Shelby Park, and I would not see that as a place that I would go to shop.”

On the other side, Falls City Market General Manager Dan Greet views the store as a solution to the problems as he sees them.

“Falls City Market is fixing an existing problem, by giving these neighborhoods what they need and deserve, by housing an emporium of eateries and shops — all under one roof,” Dan Greet, Falls City Market general manager, said via email.

What the Falls City Market is, or should be, has certainly sparked polarizing views. Like many things in the modern age, it’s provided a conduit for a myriad of takes from everyone, including city leaders, community activists and local media proxy cheerleaders. So just 24 hours after the ribbon cutting, we went to the Market to suss it out for ourselves. We found something much more middling — a unique, 21st century approach to the grocery shopping experience, albeit without the selection or value of a large chain. No, it won’t solve the food desert, but it can add convenience for those who can afford it, and may prove to be a model for other, more affordable small groceries downtown.

Everyone’s income, needs and habits are different of course, but for the sake of experiment, let’s assume a family unit of two with a relatively-modest weekly grocery budget of $50 — not the type of folks living in the Omni tower, but somewhere within a socioeconomically diverse two mile radius. What can you get here? I conducted a nonscientific poll on Facebook, asking folks what they would buy if that was their weekly budget. I heard from 30 different people, mostly in their 20s and 30s across 11 cities. The most popular items were beans, rice, eggs, cereal, frozen or canned vegetables and frozen meat. From there, it made sense to come up with some recipes that are inexpensive to make and would feed a couple of people throughout the week — like chili. Or tacos. How about both! I set off to the Falls City Market with notebook in hand to jot the prices down and later crunch those numbers. For the purposes of this exercise, we’re assuming a pantry with salt, pepper, and basic spices, though that might be my privilege showing.

Falls City Market

Upon entering, you’ll see what appears to be a cross between a Whole Foods, your neighborhood bodega and a ReSurfaced pop-up — a large space divided into separate enclaves with fresh produce, a butcher, grab-and-go sushi for the lunch break crowd and hotel guests to take back up to their room and a big green food truck plopped right in the center apropos of nothing, but delightful nonetheless. There’s a deli and a barbecue counter (because Louisville) and even a bar pouring local brews on tap. Straight ahead, three long aisles of dry goods, spanning from exotic spice blends and organic artisanal chips to Quaker Oaks and Campbell’s Soup. The Falls City Market exudes industrial chic with agricultural Kentucky Proud products for sale. It’s well-designed commercial real estate encompassing multiple identities — hotel gift shop, ambassador of local flavor, a dash of both Williams Sonoma and Wawa — the obvious result of a menagerie of compromises within any given public-private agreement.

The market’s entrance faces the Liberty Street side, where you can run in and out without navigating the Omni. There you will be greeted by a queue of small carts and stack of baskets — a good sign they have more inventory than what you could conceivably carry in your arms (though I am very talented in this department). Rumors of the size of this grocery have been greatly exaggerated — this ain’t exactly an Aldi (or “Aldi’s,” as your uncle would say). Falls City Market is spacious, but much of that space is taken up by the various service stations — the bar, the butcher, that truck, etc. Those aforementioned deli and barbecue options are competitively priced — a $9 Cuban, $7 pulled pork sandwich. Roughly a dollar or two more than what you pay at ValuMarket’s counter, but seemingly without the 25 minute wait. Respect to the delicious and hearty sandwiches of ValuMarket, of course, there’s just no recognition of the New York Minute there. Which is OK, in the value triangle of good, fast and cheap, you only get two — a crucial rule to keep in mind when consuming under capitalism.

Past the grocery shelves lie a bakery and small dairy and frozen foods coolers to the right, roughly the width of a couple traditional supermarket refrigerators. To the left, a small housewares section where you can get your grubby little hands on an official Jamie Oliver pizza stone, praise be unto him. Moving down the hall you’ll find two rooms to the left. The first is bulk candy dispensers like you’d see at the movie theater, because executives need that sour gummy worm fix too. The second is labeled “sundries,” and it’s here you’ll find those necessities — shaving cream, cold medicine, assorted items for sex having, butthole cream, bug spray and assorted toiletries. What you won’t find — toilet paper. “That a damn good idea” said a very nice lady I spoke to when asking if they had some TP. She told me later during my visit that it’s on order but not in hand yet.

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Since chili and tacos have crossover ingredients, I’ll be able to get the most mileage out of my current basket: garlic, onions, peppers, cilantro, tomato paste, canned tomatoes, canned beans, and local ground beef. Per my Facebook survey, I’m throwing in some pasta to pair with my canned tomatoes for a sauce, a bag of rice for whatever else — maybe something Cajun with the beans or a Mexican-style side dish for tacos  — and breakfast items like yogurt and cereal, as well as the staple of all blizzard survival foods known as eggs.

The produce all appeared fresh, though a bit limited. No jalapeño peppers, for example. But it did offer shallots, the onion’s mild-mannered cousin. No corn on the cob, but the market offers containers of fresh-cut kernels at a more premium price at $12 a pound. Since we as a species really need to pump the brakes on the non-compostable packaging, this is certainly wasteful plastic, and more than I wanted to spend, so no corn for me today. I did appreciate the variety of fresh herbs, as well as a diverse collection of dried mushrooms. I also dug the array of sauces since, if we’re being honest with ourselves, food is simply a vehicle for sauce. Curries, glazes, pesto, dips, hot chili oils, barbecue, pepper jams of any Scoville unit — you can get lost in the sauce here, and sauce is boss.

Another popular item in my poll included the lazy gourmand’s delight — frozen meals, whether that’s pizza, burritos or TV dinners. You won’t find that here. Their frozen section is limited mostly to ice cream and Kashi, and thoughts and prayers if you ever find yourself eating a frozen Kashi. You will find some a few Ore-Ida potato bags though. The cereal section carried really basic varieties: Wheaties, Corn Flakes and Cheerios, but also Swedish Muesli that looked cool and with slick European packaging. Wonder how much it is?

Besides the sauce collection, the real star of Fall City Market is the butcher. Tuna steak, oysters, salmon, scallops and clams on the surf side, most any cut of beef, chicken, and pork on the turf side, much of which supports local farms. I picked up a pound of grass-fed ground beef, and at $4 a pound and lean, this was a good value for the quality. The cleanliness of the display case and abundance of fresh meat here has more in common with Whole Foods, while still priced more like Kroger. I vouch for the meat counter here.

My basket, full and heavy, though devoid of toilet paper, was ready for checkout. The first item, a bag of rice, came with a little sticker shock at $11. But at two pounds in weight and organic, this wasn’t absurd, just a touch steep. The $10 Swiss muesli, on the other hand, had to go. Void that shit, Mr. Store Associate. The other sticker shock was Siggi’s Yogurt, an Icelandic-style brand, at over $5 for two small containers. It was the only plain variety stocked here without added sugar and that gross fruit jelly flotsam you find at the bottom of a Yoplait. Fine, I’ll take it. On the other end of the spectrum, the meat prices as mentioned were very decent, as were all the canned food items clocking in between $1 and $2 each. The fixings for two to three big meals with leftovers to last about a week for two people — beans, canned tomatoes, rice, pasta, beef, onions, peppers, cilantro, garlic, tortillas, salsa, pasta and the requisite eggs and yogurt totaling 16 items came to $48.31, about $3 average per item. This does not include that toilet paper and cereal, and shit, I forgot the cheese! That’s OK, we’ll consider that a calorie cutter.

Now for the data: Bush’s Black Beans are $1.49 here. At the Brownsboro Road Dirty Kroger, also $1.49. White onions were $0.89 per pound, $0.74 at Wonky Kroger. De Cecco Penne Pasta clocked in at $2.99 here, $1.99 at Gnarly Kroger. My green peppers, measured in pounds, was a one-third pound portion of delicious and versatile vegetable bulb separating me from $0.89, compared to $0.79 each regardless of size at Carnie Kroger. So, a touch more on most price tags at Falls City Market. But competing with Kroger is hard, as they can buy in bulk at a level that drives down prices, one of the reasons mom-and-pop groceries are disappearing. As well, when you factor in the extra time, effort, and ride fare journeying to a supermarket from downtown and adjacent neighborhood, it would even out, or even yield a positive, for many folks.

Falls City Market

“It may not be perfect for everyone, but I think it’s a fabulous first start,” Sexton-Smith said, talking about how its success could also open the door to replacing the former Kroger one mile south of Omni, in the area marketing dipshits are desperately trying to dub “SoBro” (sidebar: stop trying to make SoBro happen, it’s not going to happen). That Kroger closed in early 2017. While Kroger closed stores in Smith’s district as well as Shively, the company still invested $150 million in city-wide renovations and expansions so shoppers in the more affluent neighborhoods can buy furniture, fair trade coffee, and some very decent made-to-order barbecue (shouts out Eli’s BBQ at the 87,000 square foot Holiday Manor behemoth).

A nearby grocery store is not just an issue of quality of life, though. For lower-income families, many of whom rely on public transportation and live in the type of neighborhoods formerly served by the Second Street Kroger, losing that sort of community asset creates a serious hardship. Individuals with mobility issues, second- and third-shift employees, a large population of students at three nearby institutions — these are all folks who live in and near the downtown area, and all of whom spent the past year schlepping it to Churchill Downs, Germantown or Parkland for groceries. Given that sort of money and time strain while already feeling the pinch of late capitalism’s wages versus inflation inequality, it’s a textbook example of a poverty tax.

As for the new downtown store, while the big box concepts run razor-thin margins and use loss leaders to get consumers through the door in an attempt to sell them overpriced shit one doesn’t need, Falls City Market could serve as a proof of concept for how curated retail — smaller in size while ticking most boxes on the shopping list — could thrive in the urban core.

In my view, the market is not necessarily the great hope of a downtown grocery store like an Aldi, Trader Joe’s or Kroger. Nor do I agree with a recent Courier Journal headline describing it as “[not] the grocery Louisville needs – it’s the one it deserves,” because after the shameful manner in which the city kicked out homeless folks from their camps just shy of Christmas last year, the only thing Louisville actually deserves is to be swallowed up by the goddamn river once and for all. But as far as needs go, downtown needed something, anything, to address the food desert problem smack dab in the middle of the city. And Falls City Market can do that, while offering a pretty cool shopping experience, too. My demographic — college-educated 30-somethings — will enjoy the local-vorian produce and the international spices and the trendy beer bar. And most can afford it. The X-factor becomes whether it can serve people who don’t leave downtown after 5 p.m., or are in town for a convention, and especially those in lower-income households that dot the landscape around downtown. Given the prices on the more generic dry goods, meats, produce and presumably an increasing inventory (like toilet paper!) over the next few months, I believe Falls City Market could fill much of the gap left by Kroger and others for an affordable grocery store with fresh food and simple necessities. The councilwoman is right in saying it’s a very good start.

So why the “urban lifestyle market?” It’s ad agency jargon from people who say “disrupt” and “activation” unironically, and that sort of framing could cause low-wage residents to assume they can’t shop there, like a Whole Foods. That does a disservice to them, Falls City Market and the city’s cheerleading of this project. Not everything needs to be “cute” and “hip” — that’s what Nulu is for. It’s a downtown-appropriate grocery store with friendly service, a focus on local, good service and options for a variety of budgets — but perhaps not all.

[Author’s Note: I made the chili. It turned out well. Photos over at the Facebook page.] 

[Correction: This story initially stated that Siggi’s Yogurt is imported from Iceland. It is an Icelandic-style yogurt made in the United States. The story has been updated to reflect that.]  

[Scott Recker contributed reporting to this article.]

About the Author

Mirage or solution: Can Falls City Market help Louisville’s food desert?

Michael C. Powell keeps his spear sharp in many creative endeavors, freelancing as a writer, designer, and photographer whose work has appeared in VICE, The Guardian, PASTE Magazine, The Daily Swarm, IMPOSE, Consequence of Sound, and many others. Michael, who sometimes authors under the nom de plume Kenny Bloggins, loves Twitter and actively abuses the platform at @kbloggins. He is the creator of Welp!, LEO Weekly’s food features gone gonzo.

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