BURBANITE: Taking the Suburbs By Store While Urban Niche Markets Dig Into Smaller and Less


    If you’re looking to fill your shopping cart with a futon and a few cans of tuna, head east. If you’re looking to plate up with fractal broccoli and frozen huitlacoche, head west.

    Urban food retailers are fastidious about what graces their shelves. Giant, 100,000-plus-square-foot grocer/retailer megalopolises continue to spring up on the Front Range’s eastern edge. Over the past decade, alternative foot-prints to the 45,000-square-foot, 10-aisle grocer are now doting on foodies and their eccentricities. In Aurora, those indulgences have resulted in dozens of retail and grocery “super centers” springing up along the city’s most eastern borders.

    These colossal emporiums, like the Walmart Supercenter on Tower Road or the Super Target off of South Gartrell Road, act as neighborhood meccas where well-hived suburbanites can make both the necessary weekly haul as well as the novelty, once-a-decade purchases like the plasma screen TV or La-Z-Boy recliner. For Aurora shoppers commanding the automotive equivalent of an air craft carrier, the suburban mentality has increasingly become the fewer stops, the better.

    The Kroger Corp. was the latest retail super-brand to set up an all-encompassing bazaar in Aurora. The  grocery giant erected a shiny new 125,000-sqaure foot King Soopers Marketplace on Smoky Hill Road in January. With mannequins sporting the latest North Face accessory just an avocado throw from vintage movies on DVDs, the super center offers just about everything edible, wearable or livable in the Kroger-verse.

    “I would call it the changing face of retail, because not that long ago you saw people, including us, building cookie cutter stores, but it’s no longer a one-size-fits-all-approach.” Kelli McGannon, King Soopers spokeswoman, said of the company’s decision to set up shop on Smoky Hill Road. She added that Aurora’s King Soopers Marketplace is one of six such operations across the state, all of which have gone up in the past three years, and two more are currently in the works.

    But endless aisles of chattels are not exactly proliferating in Denver’s dozens of urban neighborhoods. In fact, shoppers living or working in urban cores are becoming more and more mobile in their food purchasing habits, with many consumers mirroring a more traditionally European style of visiting a different store for every major food group. That means heading to the neighborhood butcher for that week’s fix of protein, to the bakery for fresh or perhaps day-old grains and then closing the outing with a stop at a cozy, open-floor-plan market for produce.

    That urban style of shopping is something Karin Lawler, co-owner of The Truffle Cheese Shop on East Sixth Avenue in Denver’s Congress Park, said she’s seen recently proliferate in both her shop and her neighborhood.

    “It’s been changing over the years, and a lot of people are walking and biking a bit more,” said Lawler, who’s owned the cheese and artisanal food shop with her husband since 2007. “We’d much rather sell you smaller pieces and see you more often. That’s the whole premise of living in the urban setting and more of that Euro model — it’s the appeal of living in an urban center.”

    Lawler said that her shop receives most of its business from outreach she does at local farmer markets and community events around Denver, and that she’s slowly seen the local, small store food movement creep inland from the country’s coastal culinary hubs.

    “It used to be people would come in and say, ‘this is just like the shop I went to in France.’ Now, they come in saying, ‘oh I used to live in New York or San Francisco and this feels just like that.’ So it’s becoming a little more localized,” she said.

    Tim Gonerka, retail specialist for the city, said that the national market of food sales is seeing big time grocers become smaller and smaller to fit the needs of millenials flocking to urban cores and shopping at stores like Lawler’s.

    “Everybody, King Soopers, Whole Foods, Sprouts, even Trader Joes is moving toward smaller footprints,” he said. “Mostly your grocery deserts are in urban areas, so you have to be able to work in those smaller spots. Restaurants, too, are having to rethink the paradigm, because they can’t just build in their perfect size — it doesn’t work that way the closer you get to a city.”

    But, as anyone who has ventured out to Aurora’s wild wild east knows, developable land in the E-470 corridor is not exactly a scarce commodity. Add that land availability for a $620 billion annual sales figure in the grocery industry, and an area that is seeing single-family neighborhoods spring up quicker than fireworks stands in July, and those swaths of vacant high plains become delectable dollar signs. So, while urban downtowns may see a shrinking number of grocery aisles — Walmart just opened a scaled down, neighborhood market version of its normal offerings on East Colfax Avenue in Aurora this winter — don’t expect grocery growth on the eastern plains to slow down any time soon.

    “I think that in eastern Aurora, you’re going to see some of these places that we all have to go on a regular basis — the eye store, the pharmacy — go under one roof,” Gonerka said. “Because we’ll buy our groceries there as well, and that makes just one trip instead of two.”