Local business owner Katharine Hable moved to Athens three years ago after spending 25 years in New York. She was accustomed to shopping for fresh, high quality groceries at small, familiar shops nearly every day in the city.

When Hable, co-founder of Athens-based design company Hable Construction, moved into her new home in Five Points, she wanted “a neighborhood store.” She discovered Earth Fare was only a five-minute walk from her house, and there, she found community.

“It’s neighborly,” Hable said. “Being new to town, that’s important to me. I’m trying to create my community, and I just found that it was like a place I felt at home.”

But news of Earth Fare’s closure came earlier this spring, to the shock of both employees and customers of the small grocery chain specializing in organic foods and products. The Asheville, North Carolina-based company had filed for bankruptcy, citing its struggle to refinance debt and “continued challenges in the retail industry” in a Feb. 3 press release.

In the press release, the company announced the closure of all 50 of its stores, giving only a matter of weeks’ notice. A few days later, the Athens location announced its closure and began a clearance sale.

The grocery chain, which first launched in 1975, didn’t expand out of Asheville until 1994. It saw large-scale expansions starting in 2007, seeing an increase in total storefronts from 13 to 45 in 2016. That same year, stores in Kentucky, Ohio and Alabama were closed, followed closely by two in Atlanta in 2018, though those closures cited “real estate challenges.”

Tina Eckard, president of the Five Points Business Administration and owner of Bella Salon, said the closure was surprising because “it was such a busy store.” Eckard also said she noticed less traffic in Five Points when Earth Fare closed. The shoppers who would come for their groceries and then stop at a coffee shop or ADD Drug Store were no longer there.

“Everybody was devastated and disappointed,” Eckard said. “It’s an anchor store for Five Points, so it was sad to hear that it was closing because that really brought a lot of people into our business discharge.”

Then, in another turn of events, Earth Fare reopened a few of its locations over the summer, including its Athens store in Five Points on July 15.

The Athens store was one of four locations bought with a $1.9 million bid by a group of investors — which includes Earth Fare’s founder, Roger Derrough — led by Asheville businessman Dennis Hulsing, according to Grocery Dive. Other Earth Fare stores bought by the investment group include locations in Asheville and Boone, North Carolina, and Roanoke, Virginia. Other former Earth Fare locations were sold to grocers such as Whole Foods, Winn-Dixie and Aldi.

According to Eckard, the reopening has “definitely brought more people back” to Five Points. But this has highlighted another issue in the neighborhood: parking. When Earth Fare closed, parking in the neighborhood was freed up, but now that it’s reopened, there's been a resurgence in traffic in an already tight business corridor.

Earth Fare has been able to hire back many of its old employees who hadn’t already found new jobs. It was a “logical choice” for the Athens location to be one of the first to reopen because the store — newly renovated, pre-bankruptcy — was already “perfectly set up,” according to Lynese Cargill, vice president of public relations for Hulsing Enterprises. She said the “popular” Athens location is one of Earth Fare’s biggest stores, and it “performs very well.”

“We literally just walked in and brought product in and we were able to start up and running in a short amount of time,” Cargill said about the reopening process at the Athens location.

Despite the news of widespread closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, Earth Fare’s revitalization in the midst of COVID-19 has “worked out,” Cargill said. This is partially because the grocery store is an essential business, and also because Cargill suspects “everybody’s trying to be healthy.”

Like many others during the pandemic, Hable and her family have been staying at home much more often. This meant providing more food for more people. She found herself turning to Instacart orders and “packed” supermarkets when she wasn’t ordering takeout, but they didn’t have the same “community feel” as Earth Fare. She was “absolutely thrilled” when the store announced its reopening, she said.

In accordance with CDC recommended guidelines, Earth Fare has a new, limited capacity and requires masks upon entry. Patrons can still take advantage of the outside patio area, but social distancing is recommended.

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