‘Heartbreaking.’ Residents grapple with Red Front closing and what it means for a changing community

By Nicole Hostetter, contributor

There was a time, not long ago, when people who lived along the Chicago Avenue corridor didn’t need a car to get what they needed. The one-mile stretch of road is home to a public elementary school, a public park, dozens of single- and multi-family homes, a restaurant, small businesses, a gas station, a bank and a grocery store. 

The road’s amenities drew residents into the homes that sprang up around the curving neighborhoods in the 1960s and ’70s. Small things changed, sidewalks came in, little businesses opened and closed, but for 62 years Red Front Supermarket remained. Until now.

 The store’s owners announced it will close its doors once all the remaining stock has been sold off. In the meantime, it’s shortened its hours of operations as it gradually fades away. 

Once that happens, a new era for the neighborhood will begin. How it looks will be based on the decisions of two families — one with a long entrenchment in the area, and one newly involved and, at times, less warmly welcomed. And whether residents are ready or not, big changes are coming to the sleepy neighborhood on the city’s northwest end.

A Unique Ecosystem

“There’s no other neighborhood that has a park, a school, a grocery store, a corner store-slash-taco restaurant, all within walking distance,” says neighborhood resident and former candidate for delegate, Brent Finnegan. 

He said he views Red Front as an integral part of what makes the neighborhood special. 

“There is no other neighborhood that has an ecosystem like this one,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking to hear it’s closing.”

“Heartbreaking” is a word used often when residents discuss the store’s decline and forthcoming closure. Since the store opened in its current location in 1958, generations of area residents have traveled by horse and buggy, car and foot to shop for meat and produce for the night’s dinner. 

The Garber family, which opened it, had served the community’s grocery needs for long before that, having started their family business back in 1905.

“It’s surprising. It’s heartbreaking on several fronts,” said Del. Tony Wilt, who represents the area in the state’s House of Delegates and who also was a frequent shopper at the store decades ago while he and his wife lived out near Singers Glen. 

“It’s such an icon,” he said. “It’s a staple of that community and has been there so long but also, just from a business standpoint to see another business close and what it means to that local community, it’s very unfortunate.” 

Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed said the store has been part of the fabric of the community. 

“And the Garber family is just one of our well-known families in this area,” Reed said. “They always gave back to the community, and I’m really going to miss that family atmosphere they had.”

Reed recalled visiting the store as a child with her family to pick up selections from their well-regarded meat department and later as an adult to pick up lunch from the store’s iconic deli. 

“I’m just really going to miss it,” she says. “It’s awful.”

Resident Mark Finks lives across the street from Red Front with his wife, Mary. He said the store was not only convenient but integral for some of his neighbors, who relied on the store’s proximity to  might have difficulty accessing fresh and healthy food options when the store is gone.  

“I would love to see it continue to be a grocery store in some fashion,” Finks said. “It’s been a great service for the community. We have a lot of elderly neighbors who walk to the grocery store on a regular basis and I am worried where they’re going to get their food from. I worry that there’s going to be a big hole for getting food in this part of the community.”

A competitive industry

Steve Cooke, general manager of the Friendly City Food Co-Op,  laments the loss of not just a fellow grocer, but a partner of sorts in the competitive grocery landscape. 

“It’s hard to last as a business in America anymore these days, and to do it for something like 115 years is just remarkable,” Cooke said. “I mean the building itself, the Golden Skillet sign, are iconic in that part of town.”

“We had a really good working relationship with them over the years,” he added. “We sent shoppers there for things we didn’t carry, we helped their shoppers connect with local vendors. We bought some things for them through our distributors and they warehoused some [items for us]. We had a good relationship over the years.”

Small grocers, Cooke said, provide something the bigger box stores can’t: An opportunity to form relationships — not just with local customers but local producers as well.

“What we think we do a better job of is connecting with and being an entry point for local vendors, and local farmers,” he said. 

Buying locally-sourced goods is not a priority for everyone. For some, the decision to purchase food for the week is based solely on budget. To fill that gap, some shoppers turn to dollar stores for lower-cost items that provide calories.

Family Dollar, which opened less than five years ago, sits a quarter of a mile north of Red Front, but it’s not a source of fresh food, such as produce and fresh meats.  

Not offering produce is one way stores operating under the dollar store model can keep costs low. Unpurchased produce goes bad and then ends up in the dumpster. Grocers have to spread the cost of that loss across their other products, which can result in higher costs. The Institute for Local Self Reliance has been monitoring the trend of dollar store openings across the country, specifically in small towns. 

report published by the ILSR in December of 2018 highlights the intricacies of what happens when dollar stores come to a neighborhood.

“They sell inexpensive goods, and that’s what the consumer looks for,” Wilt said. “So if the consumer chooses to go that direction, the free market drives that.” But he adds, “You’re not going to go to the dollar store and go to the meat department.” 

The trouble for local grocers cannot be set wholly on the shoulders of the dollar store industry, Wilt said. Small businesses, specifically grocers, face unique challenges and fierce competition from national retailers. 

When it comes down to the numbers, operating a grocery store is not a high-profit endeavor.

“The grocery business is extremely competitive,” said Brian Shull, Harrisonburg’s director of economic development. “I think the fact that we’ve seen four locally-owned markets close in the last 10 months is a sign of that. It’s a low-margin business.”

For those without a car, Family Dollar can’t fill all their grocery needs. Food Lion and the Friendly City Food Co-Op are a bus ride away, but for some that might be too far. As it stands, Red Front’s closing will leave a hole in the neighborhood’s fresh food supply. 

The store sits dark and empty at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday.

Changing times

For residents following along on social media, the comment sections of posts regarding the store’s closing can read like the transcript of a family gathering gone wrong.

Many resident’s loyalty to the store is evident because they’ve shopped there for generations, and many employees have spent decades of their lives with the store. But the ways that dedication have been expressed have been less than familial when it comes to what some perceive as an intrusion by outsiders into an institution they regard as representative of what one commenter called “the good old days.”

In October, the Garber family announced via a letter published on Facebook that it had sold a 35% interest of the store to the Singh family. The Singhs own two other area grocery stores: Blue Ridge Grocery and Mike and Kenny Food Mart.

“After suffering excessive loss over the past two years and with most of the family reaching retirement age, the Garber family wanted to keep the store open for its many employees, and wanted to attempt to preserve the concept of a small family owned grocery, so they decided not to liquidate,” the letter said, “but instead this past summer began the sale of the business to another local family who had other grocery locations.”

The family’s letter highlights that the business had been struggling before new management . Nonetheless, many who responded to the letter and other posts regarding the store’s ownership transition on Facebook placed the blame squarely on the Singh family, including one user who remarked: “The Garbers sold it to foreigners, what did you expect?” 

In response, one user selected the laughing emoji. 

Some pointed to empty shelves and what they saw as a decline of the meat and deli department as proof that the new management was somehow at fault. Some former employees cited challenges with the transition’s rollout and the measures being taken by the new managers to try to turn the store around. 

Plenty of blame got thrown around. But more forces were at work than just those inside the store. 

Del. Wilt, as a small business owner himself, said: “I think it’s safe to assume at the end of the day it’s a business decision and an economic decision.” 

The Citizen made multiple efforts to interview members of the Garber and Singh families, as well as Red Front management over the last 10 months. John Garber Sr. and David Garber told the Daily News-Record in an interview last week that multiple factors led the closure, including competition from larger stores and “negative social media” after new management took over.

Current and former employees confirmed that a small but vocal backlash against the new owners and managers has occurred, especially on social media. 

The backlash presented just another layer of difficulty in an already complicated situation.

Resident Craig Hertzler said that although there is much for the community to mourn with the loss of Red Front, hope and growth are visible on the horizon.

“I’ve seen El Paisano Bakery, and now La Confianza Tienda Latina pop up,” Hertzler says. “Of course, there’s also La Morena beside Red Front although they’ve been around longer. Food Maxx is a mile away from [Red Front] and seems to be doing well. Also, there‘s a restaurant inside FoodMaxx. Honestly I think you could make it more of a case of a renaissance of the area than the decline — if you count the ‘brown people’ that is.”

As the city’s demographics shift and change, Hertzler hopes people’s views towards those they perceive as “different” will change too.

The Neighborhood’s Future

Many neighbors interviewed for this article would like to see a grocery store continue to occupy the space. But the fate of the Red Front property — which includes the old Park View Pharmacy that remains for lease and other buildings on the site, as well as the parking lots — remains in the hands of the Garbers or the property’s new owners if the Garbers sell. 

Shull and Adam Fletcher, director of community development for the city, said the Chicago Avenue corridor is on the city’s radar when it comes to growth opportunity. A number of spaces along the street, including the Red Front property, have been designated mixed-use. This would allow a buyer to repurpose the space to allow for both business and residential units. 

“I think the site does offer some significant redevelopment opportunities,” Shull said. “It’s close proximity to downtown, close proximity to EMU, and it’s a very well-established neighborhood that can be serviced by commercial activities on the site. I think mixed-use is a good opportunity for us to look at here.”

Fletcher, Harrisonburg’s director for community development, said the city has a vision for Chicago Avenue, but getting there takes time. 

“We hope that it becomes more pedestrian friendly, we hope that [traffic] slows down, we hope that it promotes walkability so we can continue to promote an environment for folks to say I want to live in the Holiday Hills development because I can walk to the store, I can walk to EMU, I can walk to all of these different places,” he said. “It just takes time.”

Shull and Fletcher both point out that the decision of what fills the space belongs to whoever owns it. Chains, professional offices, retail stores, and food establishments (including a grocery) could all occupy the lot.

“We certainly are willing and able to help meet with potential buyers or developers. We can offer them different opportunities and work with them, but in the end it is their decision,” Shull says. “There are a lot of factors that make it a very special neighborhood, and we hope whatever redevelops on this site will only enhance that.” 

“It’s still very early in the process but I think community development and economic development will do what we can to help maintain that special feel in the neighborhood,” Shull said.

Carmen Schrock-Hurst said she hopes whatever comes in will be a benefit to the neighborhood. 

Nicknamed “Red Front” by her college-age daughter’s roommates for the amount of time she spent shopping there, Schrock-Hurst said news of the closing “is like losing a family member to me.”

Shrock-Hurst said she loved the way the cashiers always asked about her family, and she valued the familiar atmosphere Red Front offered specifically for her. 

 “It’s a huge loss for me,” she said. “I have really restrictive vision and I knew where everything was. It was comfortable and at home and it felt like family, and now they’re going to be gone and it’s incredibly sad. Could we not have kept this from happening?”

Wilt said he has hope for the space, and for the community as a whole. 

“Our citizens are creative,” he said. “If we don’t hinder them too much, they’ll figure out a way to make it work.”

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