Local Health Food Stores Face Competition From Mainland Giant

MCCULLY (KHNL) --  A popular mainland health food store is one step closer to coming to Hawaii.  Whole Foods Market will open three stores on Oahu and one on Maui.

Its executives held a blessing ceremony at the Kaka'ako location across the street from Ward Center.  They say they're happy about the opportunity to serve the people of Hawaii.

"The culture and the lifestyle of Hawaii is so aligned with the culture of Whole Foods Market that I think it's the perfect fit for us," said Michael Besancon, southern pacific region president of Whole Foods Market.

Some believe Whole Foods will be good for the state.

"We've had a lot of great, smart development at Kaka'ako and we are looking forward to it and I know the residents I talked to are looking forward to it as well," said Rep. Tom Brower (D-Waikiki, Ala Moana, Kaka'ako).

Whole Foods stores will be in Kaka'ako, Kahala, and Kailua on Oahu, and one in Kahalui, Maui.  They'll open between the end of this year through 2010.

Whole Foods executives say they want to be a catalyst for more food production in the islands, but some wonder what this means for local health food stores.

Will Whole Foods increase healthy eating habits in Hawaii or drive out the competition?

While all health food stores sell natural and organic foods, they're quite different in their approach and scope of service.

Customers at one local health food store were cautiously optimistic that both types can co-exist in our state.

Michelle Suh shops at Down to Earth health food store on a regular basis.  For her, buying organic foods is more than just about eating healthier.

"We have diabetes, high blood pressure in our family, so we're trying to make good lifestyle choices," said Suh.

A year from now, she and others will have a choice of where to get natural and organic foods when Whole Foods opens four stores in Hawaii.

"I think there will be a lot more available but I'm just worried about the smaller stores," said Suh, "but I think people like us will still be loyal to the smaller stores we've had for a long time."

Others welcome the mainland company with open arms.

"I'm excited," said Jordan Shirk, a Hawaii Kai resident.  "I live pretty close to there and I feel it'll be competition for other stores and better price."

But stores like Down to Earth wonder what impact Whole Foods will have on local businesses, especially since all of the proposed locations are near existing health food stores.

"Their track record is to put stores in local markets where there is already a natural food store or several of them to take the market away," said Frank Santana, a spokesperson for Down to Earth. "It's not lost on us that they already have plans to put in four stores where we have our locations."

But Down to Earth remains optimistic.

"Probably in the long term it may work out okay," said Santana. "They will increase awareness of natural and organic products and maybe attract the interest of people who normally may not have been thinking about it."

While Whole Foods hopes to be a catalyst for more food production on the islands, Down to Earth said it's supported local farmers for thirty years, spending more than $2.5 million just last year.

"So we've been doing this for all along for decades," said Santana. "And they're not bringing something new to the table that we haven't already been doing for a long time."

Many shoppers say they're curious about Whole Foods, but they'll probably stick with local health food stores.

"A lot of people in Hawaii are very loyal to the stores they've grown up with so I think there's probably room for both," said Suh.  "I'd like to see down to earth and other businesses stay around."

"I would definitely shop at both because there's going to be things that you can buy at Down to Earth that you can't buy at Whole Foods," said Shirk.

A big difference between the two health food stores is that Down to Earth only sells vegetarian foods.  So that means, no meats, eggs, or animal based products.