Boom times for upscale food stores

Wegmans employees learn about offerings at the Northborough store before its recent opening. Wegmans employees learn about offerings at the Northborough store before its recent opening. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File)
By Scott Van Voorhis
October 30, 2011

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Upscale supermarkets have their eyes on Route 128. And apparently, they are packing a big appetite.

New York-based supermarket sensation Wegmans is pushing ahead with plans for its second big store in Massachusetts, this one in the middle of an office park along Interstate 95/Route 128 in Burlington.

The upscale supermarket is a centerpiece of the Nordblom Co.’s redevelopment plans for Northwest Park, near the Burlington Mall, said Tamie Thompson, managing director at Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate firm working on the project.

And Wegmans remains interested in a site near the highway in Westwood, said Jo Natale, a spokeswoman for the grocer.

It seems as if the 128 corridor’s affluence - from fast expanding biotech and tech firms to some of the highest home prices anywhere - has whetted the appetite of Wegmans, which opened its first Bay State store in Northborough two weeks ago.

Natale said the supermarket giant does not discuss what is attractive about the demographics of a particular store location, but she was happy to discuss what Wegmans shops for in general.

“Certainly, we look at income’’ when examining the profiles of likely host communities, Natale said. “That is probably the number one key that we are looking at, but it’s not the only thing we are looking at.’’

Wegmans’ push into Burlington follows on the heels of a sizable new Whole Foods grocery store at the Legacy Place mall just off Route 128 in Dedham, as well as another Whole Foods in the works at a planned, upscale shopping destination by the highway in Lynnfield.

And that may be just the start, with supermarket executives scouting out other locations along the transportation corridor, according to Robert Buckley, a senior partner with Riemer & Braunstein LLP, a national law firm with an office in Burlington, who helped secure Wegmans the local permits it needs to build its new store.

Buckley said Wegmans plans to begin construction next spring on a 140,000-square-foot monster of a store in Burlington’s Northwest Park, which is slated for redevelopment into high-end housing, retail stores, outdoor cafes, and office space.

Scheduled to open in 2013, the sprawling supermarket will include, among other features, a 15,000-square-foot market cafe that Wegmans hopes will become a magnet for office workers on their lunch hour, and even for residents interested in a casual dinner as well, he said.

Whole Foods, in turn, has emerged as a key tenant for Legacy Place, its importance rising over the past year with the bankruptcy of the Borders chain and the shutdown of its big store at the Dedham retail complex.

Meanwhile, the same developer, Chestnut Hill-based WS Development Associates, is rolling out a similar concept at MarketStreet Lynnfield, where a Whole Foods will be a flagship store, surrounded by restaurants.

“I know when I talk to prospective users, they light up when they hear about Wegmans,’’ said Thompson, who is helping lease space in Burlington’s Northwest Park. Nordblom officials “are trying to create a vibrant work environment in the suburbs, and Wegmans is one part of the strategy.’’

It’s a new trend for the 128 corridor, long dominated by sprawling office parks and the comings and goings of biotech and high-tech companies.

Yet the supermarket chains are looking to go where the office workers and shoppers are. Biotech and tech companies continue to hire new employees and lease new offices along the corridor at a time when much of the state’s economy remains sluggish.

Companies are expected to add thousands of new jobs along the Route 128 corridor over the next two decades, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council recently projected.

Tens of thousands of commuters across the region make the trip to offices along 128 in Burlington and Waltham, some traveling from as far as Rhode Island and Maine, the regional planning organization’s report found.

But the supermarkets, especially the upscale ones, are also drawn by the increasingly affluent demographics of the region’s residents, Buckley said.

Meanwhile, the upscale supermarket invasion, in turn, is part of an overall surge of retail development along 128.

The corridor, especially between Burlington and Braintree, earned a reputation over the years as a bit of a dark hole on the region’s retail map, especially when it came to upper-income shoppers, according to Buckley.

That’s changing fast with projects like Legacy Place, and upscale supermarket chains are helping lead the charge.

There are at least three other potential sites for new supermarkets near 128 between Burlington and Westwood, Buckley reports.

“Some of these stores are making a shopping experience itself,’’ Buckley said. “It becomes a destination instead of just a quick in and out.’’

New England Development, headquartered in Newton, has been in talks with two chains interested in building a supermarket at Chestnut Hill Square on Route 9 in its hometown, filling the hole left by the departure of an Omni Foods store, according to Newton Alderman Ted Hess-Mahan.

Buckley also sees supermarket potential at Sam Park & Co.’s proposed redevelopment of the old Polaroid site in Waltham. And Wegmans has a signed lease for a site in the stalled Westwood Station project, Natale said.

It’s a new concept for 128 - office parks and tony grocers side by side - but it’s hardly unprecedented. The suburbs of Washington, D.C., are full of examples of office towers, apartments, and supermarkets woven into larger, mixed-used developments, Buckley points out.

Still, despite the interest, don’t expect to see a Wegmans - or a Whole Foods or Roche Brothers grocery - popping up beside every exit along 128.

Rather, these upscale grocers are on the hunt for niches, or sweet spots, they can fill along the highway, rather than filling every available slot.

“It’s not an overall assault,’’ said Ted Tye, managing partner of National Development in Newton Lower Falls, WS Development’s partner in the MarketStreet Lynnfield project and its planned Whole Foods. “It’s looking for very select locations.’’

Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at

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