‘We’re heartbroken’: Customers say goodbye to ShopRite that is closing and blaming soda tax
Some customers said they were not sure where they’d buy groceries in the future. But one thing seemed certain: Debate over Philadelphia’s beverage tax will continue long after one West Philadelphia ShopRite closes its doors Thursday.
Didi Anderson walked two blocks from her home to the ShopRite in West Philadelphia on Wednesday morning to buy a can of peas for beef stew.
But she lingered inside, filling her cart with more than just peas, as she realized that the Haverford Avenue store, which will close Thursday, was offering all items at a 75 percent discount.
Anderson was happy about the low prices but not the closing of the store, which will leave her neighborhood without a supermarket.
“It has such a negative impact,” she said. “I’m in good health, but there are so many seniors who walk here.”
Jeff Brown, president and CEO of Brown Super Stores Inc., announced in January that he would close his Haverford Avenue ShopRite, blaming Philadelphia’s tax on soda and other sweetened beverages for a 23 percent decline in sales and an annual net loss of more than $1 million. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, meanwhile, contends that Brown is using the tax as a scapegoat for the store’s struggles and insists there is no evidence that the levy has impacted grocery sales.
As customers loaded their carts with the few remaining grocery items Wednesday, some said they typically shop elsewhere and simply came for the discounts. Others, like Anderson, were saying goodbye to their favorite local grocery store, which has sat at the corner of 67th Street and Haverford Avenue for nearly 30 years. Some said they were not sure where they’d buy groceries in the future.
But one thing seemed certain: Debate over Philadelphia’s beverage tax will continue long after the ShopRite closes its doors.
The tax is Kenney’s signature legislation, used to fund pre-K, community schools, and improvements to parks, libraries, and recreation centers. The issue is sure come up in this year’s mayoral and City Council elections; former City Controller Alan Butkovitz and State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, both critics of the beverage tax, have filed petitions to run against Kenney in the May Democratic primary. And the beverage industry could throw funding behind some of the many Council candidates.
Anderson said as she filled her cart Wednesday that the beverage tax is “ridiculous," and questioned whether the money has made a significant impact in improving education.
“I would not vote for him again if he was the only candidate,” Anderson said of Kenney. “He needs to go.”
A few aisles away, Sylvia Bryant of Southwest Philadelphia said she did not believe the tax was truly to blame for the store’s closing. Bryant said she supports Kenney and the programs the levy has funded. Drops in soda and juice sales alone should not sink a store, she added.
Brown is “trying to make my mayor look bad,” Bryant said as she shopped for ingredients to fry fish. “Do you see how many children were actually able to benefit from the preschool?”
Brown, who has been a vocal critic of the tax, said he plans to donate his remaining inventory along with extra items to local food pantries Thursday morning before closing the store and transferring employees to other stores. After meeting with residents who are concerned about losing their only nearby grocery option, Brown said he has offered to help his landlord look for a new grocery operator to move in.
Another grocer is in “late stage discussions” with the owner of the property about turning the ShopRite into a new supermarket, said Mike Dunn, a city spokesperson.
“The fact that another businessperson is ready, willing and able to step right in to that Haverford Avenue location is evidence enough that the beverage tax does not impact the ability of grocers to operate profitably in Philadelphia,” Dunn said.
Brown owns seven ShopRite and Fresh Grocer stores in Philadelphia, and five more outside the city. He has encouraged customers from the Haverford Avenue location to visit his ShopRite two miles away on 52nd Street, which recently celebrated a grand re-opening after upgrades and renovations.
At the Haverford Avenue ShopRite, shelves were largely bare on Wednesday — even in the soda aisle, where tags still reminded customers that the few remaining sodas and other sweetened drinks would still cost more due to the tax.
Gwendolyn Brown, who lives a few blocks from the store, said she came by Wednesday to see what was left in stock.
“It’s sad that the store has to close down because of the tax,” she said.
Brown said she has traveled outside the city to purchase soda since the tax took effect at the beginning of 2017. But she said she still came to ShopRite for groceries.
“We’re heartbroken that it’s closing,” she said. “It’s the only [supermarket] in the area.”