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ST. LOUIS • A grocery that’s been in the works for years just south of downtown is set to open soon and bring a new twist to the traditional grocery model.

The St. Louis Food Hub at 1500 Lafayette Avenue, which includes both a full-service grocery called Fields Foods and a food distribution and processing center under the same roof, has set an opening date of Jan. 4. Construction began in January on the food hub, which will employ 100 full- and part-time workers.

Backers of the $15 million project, Chris Goodson and Jeffrey Randol, say they’re scouting other sites both in the region and other states to replicate the concept.

“We’re looking for sites here and elsewhere,” said Randol, a partner at Cornerstone Ventures, a Philadelphia-based consulting firm that advises on the development of such stores in “food deserts” — areas that lack places to buy affordable, fresh foods.

The new 37,000-square-foot store, located in the Peabody Darst Webbe neighborhood, will seek to draw customers from the growing downtown residence base and nearby neighborhoods, including Lafayette Square and Soulard.

The site’s close proximity to entrance ramps for interstates 44 and 55 also will cater to downtown’s office workers who want to make a quick shopping trip before or after work.

“The big missing part has been a grocery store,” said Goodson, a real estate developer whose Gilded Age development firm bought the long-shuttered former City Hospital across the street in 2004 and converted the property into 104 condos. “We just don’t have other close grocery stores in close proximity.”

Next year, Gilded Age will add 62 new apartments to the 10-acre former hospital property site that’s also home to the Palladium event center, Butler’s Pantry catering, the Climb So iLL indoor rock climbing gym and Element restaurant. Additionally, A.T. Still University has acquired land and says it plans to open a dental school clinic on the former hospital site.

While businesses gravitated to the area in recent years, a grocery remained elusive as the recession put some chains’ growth plans on hold.

When Gilded Age announced plans for a grocery in 2007, it was with Minneapolis-based Supervalu, a project that never materialized. Other pending deals with Phoenix-based grocery chain Sunflower Farmers Market and local operator Sappington Farmers' Market also failed to move forward.

But Goodson remained committed to finding the right partner to bring a grocery to the site.

“If you just build up the area without amenities and services, they will leave,” Goodson said about residents who have moved nearby. A Walgreens that opened next to the planned grocery in 2010 has been “hugely successful,” Goodson said. “The demand is there. The (adjacent) Walgreens proves it.”

Stacy Hastie, chairman and CEO of Environmental Operations Inc., is an investor with Goodson on the building that will be leased by the food hub.

Lenders that provided New Markets Tax Credits and other financing include U.S. Bank, Enterprise Bank & Trust, Central Bank of Kansas City and Great Southern Bank. Chicago-based community development financial institution IFF provided an equipment loan, and St. Louis-based developer McCormack Baron Salazar and the Carpenters’ District Council of Greater St. Louis and Vicinity also provided financing. BSI Constructors is the general contractor and KAI Design & Build is the architect.

New amenities

The food hub’s size, 37,000 square feet, is smaller than a typical suburban grocery. But it’s more spacious than the 21,000-square-foot Culinaria grocery that Schnuck Markets opened two miles away in the heart of downtown in 2009. It’s also about a half mile from the historic open-air Soulard Farmers Market, which is closed on Sundays. Beginning in January, Fields Foods will be open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Fields Foods will seek to differentiate itself from other grocers by focusing on fresh foods bought from small and mid-size farmers within 100 miles of St. Louis. It’ll also have seafood, cheese, meat and prepared food departments — everything but a pharmacy. Executive chef Kurt Vonder Haar will oversee managing food production staff and events such as wine-tasting dinners.

A 15-seat wine bar, to be operated by the 33 Wine Shop & Tasting Bar, will allow customers to give employees a shopping list so they can have a glass of Chardonnay or a pilsner while someone else does the shopping. The bakery department’s coffee bar will feature Park Avenue Coffee, which has a coffee shop located down the street in Lafayette Square.

Last year, the food hub began its distribution operations at a temporary location, which will move to the new facility when construction is completed. The food hub buys directly from farmers and repackages sliced apples, fruit cups and other foods for schools and nonprofits.

“We’ll be buying $3 million to $4 million in produce a year, and that gives us the buying power to make it affordably priced,” Randol said.

Fields Foods also will offer a wide array of gluten-free, organic and non-genetically modified food alternatives to capitalize on growing demand for these kinds of foods. Sales of specialty foods in the U.S. rose to nearly $86 billion in 2012, a more than 14 percent increase from 2011, according to the Specialty Food Association, an industry trade group.

“A specialty store with a focus on local foods and produce is right on trend,” said the group’s spokeswoman, Louise Kramer. “Consumers today want to know where their food comes from and are interested in knowing the people behind their products.”

For Bob Kraemer, who lives in Kirkwood and visits the Lafayette Square neighborhood several times a week for church and to visit local stores, the food hub can’t open soon enough.

“I think it’s very much needed for the neighborhood, and it will help stabilize everything around it,” he said while on a recent visit to Lafayette Square, adding he plans to shop at Fields Foods when it opens.

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