Hale Groves joining the food wars on Miracle Mile

VERO BEACH — A year ago Miracle Mile had just the Publix as a place to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Then came Fresh Market.

Now within a few weeks, the newest old kid in town, Hale Groves, is jumping into the fresh produce game, opening a specialty market at 7th Avenue that will carry fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers, in addition to the well-loved Hale Groves citrus.

Vero Beach really is going locavorian. Alex Brown, Vice President of Strategy for Southern Fulfillment Services, the locally-owned, national parent company of Hale Groves, says the new enterprise will highlight Hale Groves citrus, but will also provide a venue for local farmers – from Indian River County and the Treasure Coast — to sell their wares.

“The core of the Hale brand has been to highlight the very best quality citrus,” Brown said. “What we have seen from our experience at our store in Wabasso is that there are some other local complementary vendors that have products that they would like to share.”

To that end, the new store will search out and emphasize locally grown items and highlight the best that the community, state and region have to offer.

“If you follow national food trends, you will find the local food movement is a pretty strong trend with people wanting to know where their food is coming from and getting closer to the source,” Brown said. “What we are attempting to do here is work with local food producers and bring that into the store.”

The company is actively searching out local growers to offer a variety of fresh, seasonal homegrown products.

The locavorian trend has been taking shape for a decade here with some of the barrier island’s top chefs, from Michael Lander at The Moorings Club to Scott Varricchio at Citrus Grillhouse, to Ray Mumford at Costa d’Este and Ben Tench at Tangos II, tapping into the locally-grown food trend.

The menus of the island’s private clubs and top restaurants now routinely include seasonal vegetables grown in Indian River County and the region.

Some have added poultry and meats raised in the western part of the county; others are even using exotic fruits, greens and condiments grown within the state.

Each year, farmers and chefs meet at a food summit to compare notes and bring locally grown food , fish and meats to restaurant tables.

Hale Groves will become an extension of that movement, they say.

“We really want to show everybody what is here in our own backyard,” Brown said. “It’s really amazing, there is a gentleman who is growing blueberries right here in Indian River County, there is a gentleman who is growing farm-raised shrimp. In Fort Pierce, there is a peach farm. We are in the heart of the citrus-producing region of the country if not the world, particularly for grapefruit.”

But there will be more than that. The store will also feature meats, seafood, a bakery, an ice cream counter and an outdoor nursery.

“I think it will all have a feel that it is under the Hale Groves brand,” Brown said. “We are going to have a meat and seafood counter which is going to be run by Jim Carroll (formerly of Carroll’s Meat and Seafood) and we are really excited about that. He has a great reputation as a local butcher.

“The shrimp that we would like to have will come from Key West and are locally farm raised; that is an example of some of the things we want for the seafood case. We live in a state where there is a tremendous seafood business. The concept is to try to highlight what is all around us and in a state like Florida there really is a lot.”

Brown is still working out the permits with the city, and if everything stays on track, he is hoping for a soft opening in October and a grand opening in November. However, he emphasized there are a lot of details the company is still working through with the city.

When the store does open, it will join two other grocery stores on Miracle Mile.

Publix had announced plans in 2007 that it was going to put in one of its specialty Greenwise stores at its Miracle Mile location when it moved across the street to the space formerly occupied by Winn Dixie. While it eventually backed away from that, it turned the new Publix into what it calls a hybrid store and integrated many of the organic and natural Greenwise products.

Then just last year, the Fresh Market opened to much fanfare in part of the old Publix space, and became an instant favorite of many beachside residents.

While Brown sees the new Hale Groves store as an extension of the high-quality brand the company has built in Indian River County over the last 60 years, he says he is not competing with Fresh Market or Publix.

“You look at a store like the Fresh Market and Publix and we clearly are not going to be competing on breadth of selection nor are we just trying to replicate a gourmet market,” Brown said. “What we are trying to do is highlight the local foods that are here in Florida, particularly in Indian River County and on the Treasure Coast.”

The 6,000-square-foot store will be located at the northwest corner of 7th Avenue and 22nd Street, across from the Longbranch Saloon.

When the store is fully operational there should be about 30 full-time employees and the company is budgeting $300,000 on renovations, plus work that is being overseen by landlord. The location had been the 7th Avenue Designer Outlet store which was gutted by fire in December 2008.

“What we like about that location is that we are on a side street in the Miracle Mile area,” Brown said. “We anticipate it being quieter and less traffic. You know how the Miracle Mile area can get, the parking lots can get very hectic.”

Penny Chandler, president of the Indian River Chamber of Commerce, reminisced about Hale Groves’ history in Vero.

Until a few years ago, there were two stores in Vero Beach – one on south U.S. 1 and a smaller store on the island on Beachland Boulevard. She said she hopes the new store will retain some of the flavor of the old Hale Market stores, especially around the holidays.

“What really set the old stores apart from anything else was the fact that you would stand in line at holiday time to order fresh fruit and you could send it anywhere you wanted it to go. And, of course, you always came home with your own bag of fresh fruit.”

Brown said that aspect of the business will be a key component of the new store as well.

“As a multi-channel brand (meaning Hale operates through mail orders and the Internet), the mail order sales are an integral part of the Hale Groves retail store,” Brown said. “There will be an area in the new store for customers to place orders.”

Hale Groves is just one part of Southern Fulfillment Services, which runs a number of operations under its umbrella including catalog brands related to citrus and gourmet foods. Among the companies it oversees are PittmanandDavis.com, GiftBasketsRemembered.com and Citrus.com, and the newly-acquired Eilenbergerbakery.com, specializing in gourmet baked goods.

It also provides services for national catalog and internet companies, including order processing and customized packaging for perishable and nonperishable products.

Locally, however, it is the Hale Groves name that residents in Indian River County recognize.

“I hope people understand what we are doing (with the new store) and they have a passion for it the way we do and that it resonates with them that when they come to us they are actually going to be supporting local businesses and the community,” Brown said. “That is a concept that we really believe in strongly.”

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