By Rosie Spinks
City on a Hill Press Reporter

This March, health-conscious Santa Cruzans will have another choice when it comes to feeding their wholesome, organic diets: Whole Foods Market.

Two new locations of the health food megachain are slated to open in Santa Cruz County, one on Soquel Avenue in mid-March and the other on 41st Avenue in Capitola during the summer. The new stores will add to the 270 Whole Foods locations already open worldwide.

With the stores’ openings approaching, some question the necessity of the chain in Santa Cruz, where local and small-scale alternatives such as New Leaf, Shopper’s Corner and Staff of Life already exist.

“I think that the local grocers in general have a spectacular level of loyalty … and I think it’s going to be difficult for Whole Foods to trim off a big percentage or part of that,” said Bill Tysseling, executive director of the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce.

Chris Thompson, a manager at the New Leaf store downtown, said he does not deny the right of Whole Foods to open in Santa Cruz, but he questions the need for it.

“I feel like the more health food the better,” he said. “Santa Cruz, more than any other place I’ve been, has a lot of health food already, so I just don’t know if we need it here.”

Danny Olivas, the executive marketing coordinator for Whole Foods’ Northern California region, explained that the arrival of Whole Foods doesn’t necessarily mean that other local competitors will be wiped out.

“Rather than take business away from competitors, Whole Foods Market helps to raise the interest in and awareness of natural and organic foods at farmers markets, co-ops, and other natural and organic supermarkets,” Olivas wrote in an e-mail to City on a Hill Press.

Tysseling said that the imminent arrival of Whole Foods in Santa Cruz has already caused local stores to take notice and make positive changes.

“I think it’s already had an effect,” he said. “It has made New Leaf and Staff of Life stronger as businesses by investing money and opening new stores.”

Thompson said the improvements and renovations at the downtown New Leaf store, such as a fresh salad bar and expanded prepared food section, have boosted profits. He suspects that the opening of Whole Foods might lower New Leaf’s profits to what they were before the renovation took place.

“I think we’ll take a hit in the beginning but in the long run we’ll sustain ourselves,” Thompson said.

Contrary to the image of chain stores, Olivas stressed the efforts that Whole Foods makes to contribute to the local area.

“We make sure to include local growers and food artisan products in our stores so we are doing our part to support local food producers,” Olivas said.

He added that a minimum of 5 percent of the company’s after-tax profits are given back to the community.

Until Whole Foods opens its doors, smaller stores are hoping that customers will maintain their local business allegiance. Thompson is confident about how shoppers will respond.

“Most of them will remain loyal,” he said. “This is a community market and we’ve been around for 25 years, so we have a set foundation in place.”