Mark Brown of West Philadelphia has spent the last year traveling 2 miles from his home on North 67th Street to get groceries.
It was his closest supermarket option, after the ShopRite at 67th and Haverford Avenue closed in March, as its owner blamed Philadelphia’s tax on sweetened beverages for hurting business.
Now, his long commute for shopping may be over. Golden Farms, a new grocery store, opened Friday in the old ShopRite location.
“We’ll give it a shot,” Brown said. “We’ll see what Golden Farms is.”
Residents had a chance to check out the new store Friday. The parking lot was jammed, and there were customers wandering the fully stocked aisles and waiting in line at cash registers by 10 a.m.
“We’re trying to be just a regular traditional supermarket … fruits and vegetables, good meat, good service,” said Pedro Goico, a co-owner of the new store.
Goico owns four stores in New York City and said the Philadelphia location was an opportunity to expand. But he said he has started to worry that the city’s 1.5-cents-per-ounce sweetened beverage tax could hurt his business.
“Hopefully everything goes well, but we don’t have any motivation to open any more stores [in Philadelphia] while that is in play," he said.
Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement Friday he welcomes the new store. Despite complaints about the tax, he said, Golden Farms is the 10th supermarket to open in Philadelphia since it took effect in 2017, and five more are expected this year.
“The doomsday messages portrayed by some opponents of the tax just have not come to fruition,” Kenney said.
During the year that the Overbrook neighborhood went without a grocery, city officials classified it as having little access to healthy foods. In the zip code shared by the new Golden Farms, about 15% of families live at or below the poverty line, according to U.S. census data. Almost 20% of families citywide live in poverty, the highest rate among America’s largest cities, and food access goes hand-in-hand with the problem.
Jeff Brown, president and CEO of Brown’s Superstores Inc., said last year that sales had fallen 23% at his store after the beverage tax took effect. After closing the Haverford Avenue store in March, Brown still owns seven ShopRite and Fresh Grocer stores in Philadelphia.
Kenney administration officials accused Brown of using the tax as a scapegoat for his store’s financial troubles. Brown has been a vocal critic of the beverage tax, which is Kenney’s signature achievement — used to fund pre-K, community schools, and improvements to parks, rec centers, and libraries.
The same week the ShopRite closed, the property’s landlord announced that a new store would replace it. (The property owner said it would be a Key Food market; Golden Farms is affiliated with Key Food but operating under a different name.)
But Goico, the Golden Farms owner, said that before he came to Philadelphia, he did not realize how close the store was to suburban competitors with lower sales taxes and no beverage levy.
“We did a lot of research but we weren’t so … deeply aware of how close all the stores were,” he said. “We also hope for it to be repealed at some point.”
Goico said that the challenge of programming the store’s point-of-sale computer system to add a charge to taxed beverages delayed the opening.
Lauren Cox, a Kenney spokesperson, said that “we’re unsure why that would be an issue” because the tax is levied on beverage distribution. (Many retailers in the city do pass the tax on to customers.)
Residents said the absence of a grocery store had been an annoyance.
“We have these little variety stores, but they close early and a lot of times they’re not convenient if you really want to do some serious shopping,” said Maurice Parker, 64, of North 65th Street.
Angela Bailey said her impression of Golden Farms was “so far, so good” as she wandered the aisles. She said she has been driving to a Giant in Havertown, three miles away, but is happy to have a closer option.
Juanita Jones, 66, said her first impression was that Golden Farms was a little dirty. “The prices are extremely high,” she added.
Even so, Jones said she would shop there, and hopes the store stays.
But some said they’d continue to leave the city to buy soda.
Mark Brown, the 67th Street resident, said he won’t buy sweetened beverages from Golden Farms. The city’s beverage tax has driven him to Montgomery or Delaware Counties for drink purchases. In addition to soda, juices and other beverages with sweetener are taxed. Juice is not taxed if it is 100% juice with no added sweetener.
“I’ve got two twin grandkids," Brown said, “and they drink a lot of apple juice.”