South Jersey supermarket scene has a second Whole Foods

First-day patrons of the new Cherry Hill Whole Foods store participate in the traditional breaking of the bread to christen the store. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)

Jim Winslow's eyes grew bigger than his stomach upon seeing the variety of bread spreads at the new Whole Foods Market in Cherry Hill.

"Oh that's good," Winslow, 51, of Cherry Hill, a vegan, said after sampling lemon-pepper spread. He filled a plastic container with a half-pound to go.

The store at the Ellisburg Shopping Center was inaugurated with a "bread break" Wednesday in front of hundreds of shoppers. The bread was baked in the store and represented what the company, based in Austin, Texas, wants to be known for - fresh and organic products.

"Today is an important milestone for our entire community," Cherry Hill Mayor Chuck Cahn said before a large crowd under a blistering morning sun with Whole Foods president A.C. Gallo and other company officials.

Whole Foods has 219 employees - 138 of them new hires - to staff the store, which will open at 7 a.m. with a coffee bar and close at 10 p.m. seven days a week.

The local grocery scene - not long ago in the news for the closings of three Pathmark supermarkets and labor-management issues at Acme - got more competitive with the opening.

Nearby, on Route 70, are a Wegmans and a ShopRite. Officials of both professed not to be worried.

"We already share market space with Whole Foods in many of the communities we serve," Jeanne Colleluori of Wegmans' consumer affairs division said in an e-mail. "When another retailer expands or opens a new store nearby, we don't change course. Instead, we focus on our employees and our customers and the things that are important to them: incredible service, the right selection of products, and low prices."

To distinguish itself, ShopRite has an in-store dietitian, and features organic and natural foods as well as a gluten-free department, said Jason Ravitz, vice president of retail operations for the Ravitz family, which owns five local ShopRite stores in Cherry Hill, Marlton, and Mount Laurel.

"Our loyal customers know that in addition to providing them fresh food at great prices, we are committed to supporting our communities and to being a good neighbor," he said.

Wednesday morning, as the Whole Foods doors opened beneath the signature green logo, shoppers were immediately hit with the aroma of fresh fruit, vegetables, and flowers.

Among them was Elisa Ramirez, 73, a retired registered nurse from Cherry Hill, who arrived at 7:30.

"This is so close to my house," Ramirez said as she filled her cart with potted orchids and lemongrass. "I save on gas. I hope it's a big success and the population here supports it."

The store is the second Whole Foods location in South Jersey - the first opened in Marlton in 1998. It occupies a 45,000-square-foot space that most recently was a Genuardi's supermarket.

Katie Clegg, 27, of Moorestown, a hairdresser at the Hair Cuttery a few doors down, said having the space no longer vacant was a vast improvement. Federal Realty Investment Trust, which owns the shopping center, said bringing in Whole Foods was expected to improve traffic and sales for all stores.

"We've waited over a year for today to happen," Clegg said as she pushed her 15-month-old daughter through the store's prepared-foods section.

Near the entrance was an eye-catching produce display modeled after La Boqueria market in Barcelona, Spain, including jackfruit, papayas, and lychees.

Much of what the store offers can be custom-made or cut to order, from salad dressings and fruit juices to meats and cheeses, and sandwiches and salads, officials said.

Much of the produce will come from several South Jersey farms. The "Made in Jersey" logo is next to every item grown in the state. The first blueberries from Hammonton arrived just in time for the opening.

"As consumers become more informed about their food choices, they have already demonstrated that they are likely to drive farther in order to purchase food that they view as more desirable," said Carol Kaufman-Scarborough, professor of marketing at Rutgers-Camden's School of Business. "The location also gives them access to consumers along the Kings Highway corridor - from Moorestown down through Haddonfield and beyond."

In addition, "Whole Foods has many innovative strategies, such as special events, featured foods, plus various types of food education, which consumers today find quite compelling," she said. "All of these features make it an attractive supermarket entry that adds more high-end variety to the local store mix."

Julia Obici, regional vice president for Whole Foods' mid-Atlantic region, said nearly 1,300 people attended the store's preopening tours Saturday and Monday.

"Customers are more educated about what's going into their body," she said.

The Cherry Hill store is Whole Foods' 12th in New Jersey. The company has 10 stores in Pennsylvania, including eight in the Philadelphia area. It has a total of 385 in the United States, Britain, and Canada.

The Cherry Hill store also has an area for small start-ups and artisans to sell their products and gain exposure, called the Hatchery. It's a first for the company. And there's a charging station in the parking lot for electric cars. 856-779-3928 @SuzParmley