Whole Foods Market, the national natural food supermarket chain that represents itself as supporting local communities, found itself under attack Wednesday when a large group of East Bay residents gathered outside its Emeryville headquarters vociferously protesting the company’s decision not to renew the lease of Ashby Flowers, a family-owned business that rents a small building in the corner of the parking lot at the company’s 3000 Telegraph Ave. location in Berkeley. In an interview with the Planet at his company’s regional headquarters Wednesday, Whole Foods Regional President David Lannon said that the company was not renewing the lease since it had plans to open a coffee shop or juice bar there.
“We have been thinking about this for a long time,” he said. “We are not terminating their lease—their lease is up in July and we will not be renewing it.”
Demonstrating “flower power,” which included colorful posters and noisy chants, several dozen small business owners, elected officials, neighborhood group leaders and customers of Ashby Flowers—a neighborhood fixture for six decades—criticized Whole Foods’ decision, and called the issue another case of a “big corporation bullying the little guy.”
They labeled Whole Foods’ proposal to take over the space and turn it into a coffee or juice bar “deplorable,” especially since it would push out a small independent family-owned business, putting its future in jeopardy in a frail economy.
Founded in Austin, Texas in 1980, Whole Foods opened their second Bay Area store in Berkeley—the first one was in Palo Alto—in 1989, and owns the entire property, including the 27,000-square feet single-story store and the parking lot outside.
“It’s a small Whole Foods—having that 1,000 square feet gives us some additional space,” Lannon said.
Whole Foods currently employs 210 people at its Berkeley store and hopes to add 10 more to the proposed coffee or juice shop.
Lannon said that the company had informed the owners of Ashby Flowers, Iraj Misaghi and Marcy Simon, of their decision last April, giving them plenty of notice.
“We met with them last year and told them we were not going to renew the lease,” he said. “I made the offer at that time that we would help them relocate to another location in Berkeley but they turned us down. The economic downturn has created a lot of empty spaces in Berkeley and we would have been able to find a nice space for them easily. But they want to stay.”
However Misaghi and Simon, who are married, told the Planet during a demonstration outside the company’s red brick and glass building that Lannon had spent barely five minutes with them explaining the situation and had not offered any help.
“We got a letter from them around April or May informing us of their decision,” Simon said. “When we met with them a few months later they told us ‘this is our space, we run it, we will do with it as we choose.’ We told them that if we go anywhere else we will lose our customers. We are Ashby Flowers, we want to stay on Ashby.”
The couple said that Lannon had not given any specific reason for the company’s decision, and it was only later that Simon found out that the company planned to put a coffee shop there.
Lannon said that although he hadn’t been specific about the plan since it was still in a planning stage, he had told them what Whole Foods wanted to do with the space.
“There’s no conspiracy going on, we want to be as transparent as possible,” he said, adding that some of the ideas Whole Foods had for the space included its own coffee brand Allegro, natural fruit juices, raw almond milk and fermented kombucha tea which would help promote the store’s raw food diet philosophy.
Simon said that her flower shop had received a lot of support from the community—including Berkeley mayor Tom Bates—who wanted to see the store to remain at its current location.
Berkeley councilmember Kriss Worthington—who wore a poster decorated with white lilies—said that he and Bates were trying to meet with officials at Whole Foods to help them reach some kind of resolution with the flower store.
“This is holistic hypocrisy,” he said. “Whole Foods claims to be a humanistic and holistic company. They are neither holistic nor humanistic if they kick out a small business—especially in this economy. We spend a lot of time attracting small businesses to the city and this would hurt a lot. We need flowers, not financial foolishness.”
Nancy Carleton, co-chair of the Halcyon Neighborhood Association—a neighborhood group with members living within a 10-minute walk of the Ashby Whole Foods—said that the association’s members, who very rarely take a position on land use issues, were against the Whole Foods decision and wanted the supermarket to consult with the neighborhood before taking any formal steps.
“In a tight economy, why would you want to engender negative feelings in the very neighborhood that supports your business by continuing on the current course of replacing Ashby Flowers with an unwanted cafe in the face of such strong community opposition?” she asked. “Ending Ashby Flowers’ lease would break an important trust with your neighbors and undermine the very foundation of being a ‘good neighbor’ that Whole Foods Market has endeavored to practice since 1990.”
Ashby Flowers, which owns another flower shop, Telegraph Flowers on Telegraph Avenue, supports three families and hires six to eight employees depending on the amount of business they get.
Aaron Vance, an Oakland resident who shops at both Ashby Flowers and Whole Foods, said that Whole Foods was moving into the flower shop in order to increase their revenue.
“They say that they are doing well when everybody else is downsizing in this economy,” he said. “How is that possible?”
Company officials said that despite the slow economy, Whole Foods had reported positive quarterly earnings and was still planning to open new stores in Santa Cruz in March and in San Francisco's Noe Valley in September.
“It’s tough for everybody, but customers who are committed to health and wellness will still want to eat healthy,” Lannon said. “However, we are slowing down the number of new store openings.”
Around 2 p.m. in the afternoon, when the rally still hadn’t shown any signs of slowing down, Simon said that she had received a call from the economic development team at Whole Foods who had asked her to meet with them.
“I will meet with them as long as they allow someone from the neighborhood association to come along with me,” she said. “I am hopeful, but we will see.”
For more information on Ashby Flowers visit www.ashbyflowers.com.
For questions about Whole Foods’ decision, write to email@example.com.