An estimated 400 people turned out to give support and opinions on a potential grocery store in Warrenton during a meeting hosted by the county economic development office and town of Warrenton on March 5.

Stacy Woodhouse, county economic development director, opened the gathering for the standing room crowd with some statistics on how grocery stores make decisions on where they open. He noted that representatives of at least three grocery stores were supposed to be in the audience.

Woodhouse said that Lowes Foods, which owned the former Just Save grocery store that closed in Warrenton in July 2018, had nearly auctioned off the $1 million in equipment inside and agreed to not sell it, in order to help the town and county in recruiting another store.

He said that Just Save closed because it was losing money and that a grocery store needs at least $5.5 million a year in sales just to make it. The average Food Lion does about $13-14 million a year in sales, he said, and the one in Norlina likely does more than that in sales with Just Save closed.

“If we do get a new store, you’ve got to go there or they’re not going to stick around,” Woodhouse said. “And I know it’s not the people’s fault. They weren’t giving you a product that you wanted.”

Results of a survey that attendees were asked to complete that night would sway whether or not a grocery store would decide to come here, Woodhouse said, and he encouraged everyone to fill one out before they left. In addition to asking about grocery buying habits, the survey asked if respondents would support the county and town of Warrenton providing incentives.

During the meeting, Woodhouse said that local and state incentives were possible.

Most of the hour-long meeting was spent taking comments from the audience on what citizens want to see from a grocery store. Preferences included the following: good meats, fresh produce, a variety of products from store brands to higher end, products for special dietary needs, a rewards program, sale items in stock, fast in and out, good customer service, a safe environment, some prepared foods, a good deli, being able to find things on the shelf, cleanliness, full service, affordability with senior citizens in mind, a good community partner, and locally sourced products.

Offering fried chicken received a lot of positive feedback, and several people said they felt it was important to have a grocery store that was different from others in order to attract customers.

One speaker said that there is a “perception of Warren County that we want cheap prices, and that’s not the case.”

Most speakers seemed to agree that offering quality products was more important than low prices. 

Several audience members said they wanted the grocers in the audience to come up and introduce themselves, but at Woodhouse’s invitation, they chose to remain anonymous.

Woodhouse said there was a possibility of a smaller grocery store and asked if citizens were willing to pay more for offerings from local farmers, and explained the higher price partly because produce, for example, would be fresher, having been harvested the day before, rather than traveling here for days across country. 

He said a smaller grocery store would still be full service.

After an audience member asked again to know who the grocers were so the audience could choose from them, Felicia Gupton took the microphone and noted that some people were in denial.

“I don’t know if everyone else was paying attention … but I think what you’re missing is that clearly, not many want to come here,” she said. “I think we need to understand we are not in a position to pick and choose who we want to come here. I’m not saying we need to settle for anything … we have the right to want quality, we have the right to want fresh food. We don’t have the right to pick the name of the grocery that’s coming to our town.”

Gupton received several rounds of applause from the audience for her remarks.

“I want to apologize to the grocers that are here,” she said. “This is not reflective of who Warren County is as a community. You cannot ask for a more warm, more caring group of individuals, but please, we don’t want you to feel like we’re just going to settle for just anything, because that’s not what we’re doing.”

Woodhouse told the newspaper that after the survey results are compiled, they will be shared with the grocery store representatives and next steps determined.