Battle between A&P and Whole Foods in New Jersey

January 19, 2010 10:41:01 AM PST
There are accusations that a supermarket giant is trying to thwart competition by putting up legal roadblocks. It's A&P versus Whole Foods in the Bergen County community of Closter, and small businesses and residents say they're paying the price. Now, they're fighting back, with a boycott against A&P.

On a good day, Closter Plaza looks tired. On a bad day, getting from here to there can prove precarious. The parking lot is pitted with potholes and floods when it rains.

"We have three cases of our customers who've fallen in the parking lot because of the potholes," said Ernest Gyger, a store owner.

The only big draw, a Stop and Shop supermarket, moved out two and a half years ago. Now, several other stores are vacant too.

"Clearly, this shopping center is in a very depressed state," said Sol Glastein, business owner.

Developer Joe Lipari is ready to dig in and give the plaza a complete facelift.

"When we are done with this center, what we have proposed is magnificent," Lipari said.

Whole Foods is contracted to become the anchor tenant, moving into a space abandoned by Stop and Shop.

"We will create hundreds and hundreds of jobs during construction and hundreds more permanent jobs," said Lipari.

The Closter planning board unanimously approved the planned project. The problem is A&P, which has a store about a quarter of a mile away. Even before the Closter planning board discussed details of the development, residents had filed a lawsuit protesting the zoning for the Whole Foods. It just so happens those residents were current or former A&P employees.

In court papers obtained by Eyewitness News, one employee admits that A&P managers solicited him to become a plaintiff. A spokesperson for A&P denies it is trying to block competition, adding: "We pursue land use challenges only in those instances where an application represents a serious violation of the law and would have a resultant impact on our business."

Eyewitness News reporter Sarah Wallace: "Do you believe A&P is just trying to keep a competitor out?"
Closter Mayor Sophie Heymann: "Oh, absolutely."

Heymann says she's been told A&P plans to appeal the Board's approval of the planned development.

Wallace: "You think this is deliberate on their part?"
Heymann: "I am absolutely certain that it's deliberate on their part. I don't think for one minute they're helping Closter."

Joan Marks Akselrad is now leading a grass-roots campaign to boycott A&P.

"I have 500 on my e-mail list," she said. "Others have their own personal emails lists."

The concern is that if a legal battle drags on, Whole Foods might pull the plug. That might force the rest of the storeowners out.

"We will all be losers, and this shopping center will look the way it does indefinitely because of A&P," said Glastein.

A&P has 45 days to file an official appeal, which they are expected to do. On Thursday, there was a protest against A&P down in Warren County, New Jersey, where the company is trying to prevent a SHOP-RITE supermarket from being built.

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