Can downtown Lexington support two groceries?

City employees and downtown residents mingled near the produce at Town Branch Market on East Main after Monday's ribbon-cutting ceremony.
City employees and downtown residents mingled near the produce at Town Branch Market on East Main after Monday's ribbon-cutting ceremony.

It's been a longtime lament: Downtown has no groceries. Efforts to lure them failed for years. Residents went so far as to call for two-way streets because major grocery chains prefer them for sites.

But now, within one month, two independently owned grocery options have opened for area shoppers, Shorty's and Town Branch Market. With so much so quickly, can the marketplace support both?

Downtown residents and city officials firmly think it can, and both owners note they have different target customers.

"Healthy competition can actually add to success and encourage market development," Mayor Jim Gray said Monday morning after cutting a ribbon at Town Branch Market, at Esplanade and East Main Street. "They're both small markets, but they are different."

Town Branch Market, in the space previously occupied by a rug store and an extension of Natasha's Bistro & Bar, is arranged much like a convenience store but offers a small selection of produce, meat, milk and other items not typically found in such a shop.

The store also sells sandwiches and breads that are prepared elsewhere. For instance, Donut Days will provide pastries, and the store will carry Bluegrass Baking's artisan breads.

"If we can get it locally, it's going to come locally," said owner Howard Stovall.

Stovall said his product offerings are geared toward downtown office workers and pedestrians looking to pick up a quick snack.

Close to city hall, the store is already seeing business from government workers, Gray said.

By contrast, Shorty's, which calls itself "an urban market," is a New York-style grocery with a greater variety of produce, meat and other food offerings. The store, in the Traditional Bank building at Upper and Short Streets, has an extensive deli.

"People really like the fresh-made sandwiches and paninis," said part-owner Hannah Goodman.

She said traffic at the store has been good since it opened earlier this month.

Among the customers is Gray, who said that until now he had shopped at the Kroger on Euclid Avenue near the University of Kentucky.

"I'm going more to Shorty's since it's three blocks away from my house," the mayor said, and he complimented the store's food selection.

Gray said he feels positive about the future of both markets, citing the increased number of people living downtown.

"Ten years ago, downtown probably couldn't have supported a grocery," said Goodman, who has lived nearby for three years. But now, the void was obvious.

"The fact that there hasn't been a grocery downtown is kind of silly," she said.

David O'Neill, property valuation administrator for Fayette County, said the lack of a grocery was easily the No. 1 complaint from those living downtown.

"We've been hearing for years there's no place to shop," he said.

Councilman Steve Kay has lived downtown for three decades and said the emergence of the stores was the "linchpin" for downtown's growth.

"What makes a downtown viable is if you can get what you need," he said. "It's handy just to be able to come in and get a snack or sandwich."

Town Branch's Stovall said downtown's population probably could support a third grocery-style store on the west end of Main Street. After all, he's focused more on workers and passersby.

Among the first to find his store Monday were Barb Cooper and Ashley Waechter, who produce The Best of Lexington visitor guides and were driving around downtown.

Waechter, who bought organic broth, said, "There's a little bit of everything."

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