A new grocery store featuring locally grown, organic foods will open early next year in Hickory, in the old ACE Hardware building on North Center Street (N.C. 127).organic meats

Food Matters Market will carry locally grown produce, meats and dairy products as well as a full line of foods that are fresh, organic and sustainable. It will have a full-service meat department featuring grass-fed, hormone-free meats and a fresh seafood department.

The new store at 2310 N. Center St. also will feature gluten-free products as well as natural health and beauty aids and supplements. It will feature locally brewed beers, local wines and organic and premium pet foods. The store will have a salad bar and a deli featuring soups, salads and gluten-free deserts.

Food Matters Market will be similar to Earth Fare and Whole Foods, but it will be smaller, according to co-founder Al Kirchner. There are no Earth Fare or Whole Foods stores in the area.

“We are not as big in size, but we will have the same departments and categories of products as the larger stores,” said Kirchner. “We will have everything Whole Foods and Earth Fare have but not as many products in each category. For example, while they may have 16 cereals, we would probably have six.”

A former CEO of Earth Fare, Michael Cianciarulo, is one of the founders of Food Matters Market. Cianciarulo, of Hendersonville, oversaw the growth of the Earth Fare chain from two stores in 1998 to 15 stores when he left 11 years later. He and Kirchner founded Food Matters Market, opening the first store in Brevard in 2012. Kirchner, who lives in Asheville, also worked for Earth Fare as a financial officer when the chain was first expanding its stores into new markets.

The 12,000-square-foot Hickory store will be the company’s second. Kirchner and Cianciarulo plan to open 18 stores in the southeastern United States by 2018. Plans call for the stores, which will range in size from 8,000 to 12,000 square feet, to be in communities with a population of 15,000 to 30,000. Hickory is a little larger, with a population of about 40,360, but Kirchner says Hickory is a good location because it does not have similar stores and there is a demand for the products.

“Our idea is to bring this type of healthy products to smaller markets that are not served by the larger stores like Whole Foods and Earth Fare,” said Kirchner.

Added Cianciarulo: “A lot of people in Hickory have told us they drive to Charlotte for those types of products.”

When the Hickory store opens during the first quarter of 2015, it will have about 20 to 30 full- and part-time employees. The building where ACE Hardware was located for many years is being renovated. Store hours have not been set.

The store will purchase locally as often as possible, which could mean anywhere within about 100 mile radius, according to Kirchner. Buying local supports the local community as well as provides fresher, more nutritional food, said Cianciarulo.

Food Matters Market stores not only support local growers, the company is community oriented. The owners describe the stores as community markets “where people and food matter.” Making a positive impact on the communities where the stores are located is a company priority, say the founders.

“Everything we do is locally driven,” explained Cianciarulo “From the team members we hire to buying local products and using local vendors, we like supporting the community we are in. We also help any kind of charities we can help. We try to keep everything in the community.”

The company’s Brevard store is involved with local charities and organizations, including the Brevard Music Center, Brevard College and boys and girls clubs as well as bike and foot races. Each store has a program through which people can support charities by using re-usable shopping bags.

Lowes Foods recently announced plans to renovate its store at Belle Hollow Shopping Center at 3010 N. Center St., about a mile from the new Food Matters Market. The renovation, scheduled to start later this year, will reflect the company’s new community-based concept that highlights local and organic foods and the company’s Carolina roots.

Cianciarulo says he doesn’t expect the Lowes renovation to hurt the new store’s business because Food Matters Market will carry a larger line of organic products. On the other hand, he said he does not expect Food Matters Market to hurt the business of the city’s smaller natural food stores.

“We see it (Lowes expansion) as more of an opportunity to get a customer who is not exposed to organics an opportunity to try them. As new customers get exposed to organics, they will want to go a little deeper into it, and we are there to meet that need.

“And, we don’t come to town in hopes of putting out of business the small natural food stores. Our experience with Earth Fare in Athens, (Ga.) and in Boone was that our stores helped the small guys by bringing more exposure to the organic industry. It might have hurt them initially, but overall, they have done well. We are like a super Walmart of organics, and people don’t always want to go to super Walmart.”

Kelly Dillon Davis, brand director for Lowes Foods, said the remodeling will highlight the store’s large selection of local and organic foods. The store changes will include installing a salad bar and increasing the variety of organic products and meats. The company plans to gather feedback from Hickory residents to use in remodeling the store. Lowes Foods recently signed a long-term lease on the store in Belle Hollow Shopping Center.

As for competition from the new Food Matters Market, Davis said, “The more competition we have makes us better. The more people that carry these products, the better in general for everyone. It increases the demand which increases the supply.”

Charlene H. Carpenter is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Charlene? Email her at ccarpentercharlotteobserver@yahoo.com

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