It was announced in January that Whole Foods will be taking the place of the former Hi-Lo Foods on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain, causing some upset in the community. On March 9, the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council publicly opposed Whole Foods’ plan to open the store at the Centre Street location. Hi-Lo, a Latino grocery, had been at the location for 47 years.
Although the exact date when the Whole Foods is to open is unknown, Whole Foods said in an open letter to the Jamaica Plain community that it will begin design plans for renovations late this month.
Elias Velasquez, a former Hi-Lo Foods employee, said that he was given no more than two weeks’ notice that he would no longer have a job, which he feels was not enough time considering his long employment history with the company.
“I was so sad and down,” he said. “I had been working there for 29 years. I just found it sneaky how they told us, as if they were trying to hide it from us.”
Another worry for Velasquez is his fellow employees’ struggles to find jobs.
“The people I worked with were more than just co-workers; they were like friends to me,” said Velasquez. “No, I take that back; they were like family to me. I am just worried for them finding jobs.”
One of the former Hi-Lo employees Velasquez worked with had been working there for 30 years and speaks no English, which causes Velasquez pain because he questions where this man will work now.
Whole Foods, however, claims that it has open job opportunities for those who formerly worked at Hi-Lo Foods.
“We have hired some previous Hi-Lo employees already to various Whole Food locations,” said Heather W. McCready, Whole Foods’ public relations manager. “We haven’t hired any yet for the Jamaica Plain Whole Foods, but have guaranteed interviews for those previous Hi-Lo employees.”
In an open letter to the Jamaica Plain community, Whole Foods North Atlantic Regional President Laura Derba said, “We understand and appreciate your concerns for the future of Hi-Lo’s staff. We have already hired several Hi-Lo employees in our stores, and we are working with the local unemployment office to make sure that the remaining employees know that Whole Foods Market is guaranteeing them priority interviews at any of our store locations and facilities.”
The decision to close Hi-Lo was based on the “age of the management team,” Stephen Knapp, president of Knapp Foods Inc., the company that owns Hi-Lo, told the Boston Globe. He continued, “We felt that this was a good time to look for a company that can carry on the mission of serving the community. We felt that this was a good fit.’’
But not everyone agrees with Knapp. With Hi-Lo closed down, many worry for the loss of the culture that the store brought and how this may affect the community.
“I believe the Spanish community needs their variety of foods, which is what Hi-Lo was able to give them,” said Velasquez. “I just don’t want to see the Spanish community slowly fade away because of something like this.”
Whole Foods claims that if there is a product not on the shelves and customers desire it, they will make sure to find it and carry it for them. “Absolutely, we make sure to carry what the community wants to purchase,” said McCready.
Derba says in the open letter, “We believe that everyone has the right to have access to affordable, high quality, clean food free of artificial ingredients and additives. This includes carrying a wide variety of Latino products. As with all of our stores, we will carry products that cater to the diverse demands of the community. If shoppers express interest in a product and it meets our quality standards, we will carry it.”
Morgan Ward, manager of the specialty grocery City Feed on Centre Street, believes that neighborhoods are a reflection of the people who live in it. “We’ve been competing with Whole Foods as long as they have been in business; it’s really nothing new,” said Ward. “I’m just interested to wait and see what happens. How will this affect our neighborhood?”
Harvest Co-Op’s general manager, Mike St. Clair, believes that Whole Foods will have a small impact, but is confident that his customers will keep coming. “We have always been competitors with Whole Foods,” said St. Clair. “There is also a Harvest in Cambridge and a Whole Foods, and if we survive it there I know we can also survive in Jamaica Plain.” Harvest is grateful for its 12-year stay and success in Jamaica Plain, and for its long-lasting customers, said St. Clair.
In terms of Whole Foods contributing to the Jamaica Plain community, Ward believes there could have been a different approach. “Why couldn’t there have been a greater use of space, something like The Food Project?” he asked. The Food Project has built a national model of engaging young people in personal and social change through sustainable agriculture. Food from local farms is distributed throughout community supported agriculture programs, farmers’ markets, and to hunger relief organizations. “There are plenty of Whole Foods that might not be in walking distance, but close enough,” said Ward, adding that City Feed has no negative or angry feelings towards Whole Foods, but believes that other approaches could have been made in bettering the community.
Whole Foods, said McCready, comes with open arms and is eager to contribute to the community. “We want to create productive relationships with community stores as well.”