Food Fight: Local Grocer Straub’s Revamps, Prepares to Face Whole Foods

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Straub’s — since 1948 the Central West End’s favorite grocer — is about to experience a transformation. The grocer that once sold ice cream at the 1904 world’s fair has big plans for its location next to the Chase Park Plaza. Architecture firm JEMA and builder Blackline Design + Construction have re-invisioned the landmark local business.

Skylights, Ceilings and Glass

Gone will be a disused restaurant space above the store, and in its place will be double height spaces with floor to ceiling glass and skylights flooding sunlight into the store. The renovation will bring new floors, ceiling and lighting, new equipment and meat cases, a new entry area, a new customer service office and an outdoor patio. The bakery and deli departments — added in 2000 as part of a store expansion — also will see smaller improvements. A $500,000 building permit for internal and exterior renovations is on file with the city and a temporary construction entrance has been installed.

While the store’s entrance will remain at the northwest corner, the building’s southwest corner at Kingshighway and Maryland — currently the floral department — will be opened up with glass. That was once the restaurant’s entrance, with a staircase on one side leading up to the dining room. (The Clayton store’s restaurant lasted as late as 1996.) Current plans include the removal of the current floor between the store and restaurant space, which effectively will double the volume of the store. “It won’t feel claustrophobic,” says President and CEO Trip Straub, “It’ll feel brand new.” Plans call for a patio outside a new entry area.

The store will remain open during construction.

Big Changes in the Neighborhood

Big plans are being made to the retail corridor at Kingshighway and Maryland Plaza. The Chase Park Plaza is in the planning stage to open up it’s Maryland Plaza facade as retail storefronts [Link: /2014/05/retail-plan-park-plaza-gets-cro-endorsement-ahead-hearing/]. And the Central West End Business Community Improvement District is in the early stage of planning a new streetscape along Kingshighway from Carriage Lane south to Lindell Blvd. That design will be coordinated with the Straub’s renovation. [PDF]

A block further south, Kohn Pedersen Fox has been hired to envision a new mixed use tower for the southeast corner of Lindell and Kingshighway. A block to the east, Opus is currently constructing a $50 million, twelve story building with 217 high end apartments and street level retail. And a block south of that project, Mills Properties is building a $75 million building with 177 apartments above retail.

{the first Straub’s grocery in St. Louis}

Grocery retail. As in Whole Foods.

Straub’s is something of a David preparing for the arrival of Goliath when Whole Foods Market opens late this year. Texas-based Whole Foods is a $19 billion corporation. And it will be just three blocks away at the corner of Euclid and West Pine in a building that received $10 million in public tax increment financing. While the Whole Foods TIF applies to the whole building, those funds would have been worked into any lease arrangement. Still, Straub takes it in stride. “Are they a competitor?” Straub asks. “Absolutely. But we’re betting that Whole Foods customers in the Central West End are already driving to Brentwood to shop. We’re hoping we won’t lose that business because it was never ours.”

Straub’s has a lot that Whole Foods doesn’t have. Straub’s has a wide selection of USDA Prime meats. It has a fully stocked liquor department. And it sells name brand essentials like Heinz ketchup and Bounty paper towels. “Whole Foods doesn’t carry Coke or Pepsi,” says Straub. Straub’s stocks natural and organic products as well as Northwest Coffee, local chocolates, and a full selection of local and international wines and beers. But while the store has remained at the front edge of the grocery busines, Straub’s also carries Bunny bread and Bud Light.

A Third of a Pound of Hamburger

Straub’s has a legacy of full service. A security guard always smiles and says hello. He watches your car and helps you with your cart if needed. The wine expert can help you pair the right bottle with your meal.

And though still a small business, the company serves its employees. Unlike Whole Foods, Straub’s is a union shop. It’s employees have health coverage and retirement benefits. Whole Foods founder John Mackey famously compared unions to herpes. Straub’s is more of a family. When Lesley McSpadden, a deli worker at the Clayton store, lost her son — Mike Brown — last August, Straub’s immediately helped facilitate the Michael Brown Jr. Memorial Fund in his honor. This is a business that cares for its people and is invested in its community.

For me, though, the real service has always been behind the meat counter.

Have no doubt about it; Straub’s is a premium grocer. This January, Trip Straub joined the ranks of Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca as an inductee in the Specialty Food Association’s Hall of Fame–a recognition reserved for those who have most shaped the industry.

But I remember when I was a poor grad student in the 1990s. Straub’s was the place that would sell me a third of a pound of ground hamburger when that was all I needed. When I got a job and stayed in the neighborhood, Straub’s butchers were the ones who introduced me to the petite tender — an amazing cut of beef that was a lot less expensive than the one I was planning to purchase. And they always offered to slice it up for me when planning to do a stir fry. Seriously. They’ll cut your meat for you.

While the store may expect to take an initial sales hit as neighbors check out the large corporate competitor moving into the neighborhood, Straub believe their sales, service and quality products will bring those customers back.

I tend to think they’re right.

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  • scott

    Some of the cashiers need to go thru hospitality training. Wouldn’t hurt for them to stop their conversations with each other and speak to the customer when they approach the checkout line. They could use a Trader Joe’s cashier training in hospitality

  • Luftmentsch

    And….I do think it a shame that they can’t figure out how to add an entrance on Maryland, even if it was just an entrance, like maybe something with a turnstile, watched over by a camera. This would be a major boost toward pedestrian friendliness.

  • Luftmentsch

    Much more important than any renovation: they need some quality control for their fruits and veggies. Straub’s has one of the best meat counters in the country (as good as Julia Child’s old place in Cambridge, MA), but the produce section is so bad it makes Pete’s Shur-Save look like Union Square Market. Whole Foods is going to destroy them if they don’t stop selling moldy, overpriced green beans.

    • MikeStL

      I agree with your poor produce post. I’ve bought grapes that were moldy but didn’t notice until I ate a couple. Other produce items I’ve purchased seem to go bad quicker than they should… I haven’t tried their meats.

      • Jason Best

        Amen. Agree that the meat and seafood counter is great, but otherwise the current store is a disaster: dark, cramped, crazily overpriced and, yes, produce that’s decidedly sub-par. That it took a big gourmet national chain moving in for Straub’s to finally up its game kinda speaks to the management’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward their customers for lo these many years, even if, yes, I’ve always found the staff very nice.

    • Presbyterian

      Hmm. Not something I’ve experienced, personally. I buy their arugula (Schnuck’s seldom carries it), hydroponic tomatoes, cilantro, greens… but I don’t know that I’ve bought green beans there. I’ve always thought they had great produce.

    • scott

      The produce is really not good imo. Not sure if the turnover is not quick enough but spoils in a day if not already rancid

  • T-Leb

    I didn’t read closely, any craft beer selection improvements?

  • moe

    Like all designs, some will like it, some will hate it. I like it. I’m glad that they are re-investing in their store instead of closing up or moving it. Would they have done the renovation if Whole Foods wasn’t a looming threat? Don’t know. Do know it’s cramped and needs a make-over. But who are we kidding…for decades the CWE has been the leader in re-inventing itself over and over and over again. We’re seeing another cycle beginning again with all the new construction and businesses. I’m willing to bet Straubs is going to be around for a very long time.
    I agree that they’ll take a hit in the short-run as people check out the novelty. Those that value what Straubs offers will tire of the crowds and return. And the crowds will be different. You can enter the crowded Straubs and you’ll get plenty of ‘excuse me’s’ from the customers as they weave around each other…..not so at Whole Foods. But the people that have valued Straubs in the past will do so again. Yes, Whole Foods will carry a lot of and more variety of the goods Straubs. Yes Whole Foods will provide good customer service. But like Starbucks….there are people that value the local over corporate, the more personal service and the more personal customers.

  • BudSTL

    St. Louis is truly blessed to have such a wonderful organization as a part of our community. My daughter worked for them while attending High School, and I can attest to the family atmosphere that they create. Certainly they are not inexpensive…but they actually provide kind service and attentive care I cannot find anywhere else. I will always be a customer!

  • raccoozie

    That’s too bad. I walked there the other day and thought it was great to have the entrance at the Southwest corner.

  • imran

    That historic Straubs photograph is stunning. So much more than this modern renovation could ever convey. Anyhoo……

    • Presbyterian

      Yeah, that was a different location.

  • matimal

    So, pedestrians will still have to walk through the parking lot to get in?

    • Justin

      Yeah it does suck that you can’t enter at the corner. But you don’t actually have to walk through parking lot because there is a path that runs along northern side of the building that connects to sidewalk along kingshighway. Still not ideal though

      • Presbyterian

        The entrance will remain by the northwest corner of the building, which is where it always was. (The southwest corner entrance was to the restaurant upstairs.) They are turning the western edge of the parking lot into a patio and seating area.