Widely heralded grocery store in Marrero closing after a year

Sterling Farms’ flagship grocery store on Lapalco Boulevard in Marrero, which opened a year ago amid national attention for its mission of bringing healthy food to underserved communities, will close this week.

The store drew national media attention when it opened, including a visit from Michelle Obama while the Obama administration was touting its Fresh Food Initiative to bring healthy grocery options to so-called “food deserts.”

Despite the closing, owners Troy Henry and Wendell Pierce said they have two out-of-town locations in the works and a new business model, and that the Marrero store’s failure is a learning experience that will help their company going forward.

The new stores are planned for Alexandria and Atlanta, though no lease agreements have been signed and there’s no set timetable for them to open. Pierce said the two locations represent the chain’s two strongest potential markets right now.

With the Marrero store slated to close Thursday, “all of our grocery store resources will go to our two best markets,” he said.

Pierce, a New Orleans-born actor known for his roles in the television series “The Wire” and “Treme,” said Friday that Sterling still plans to put full-service grocery stores in the New Orleans market, with New Orleans East and the 9th Ward the most likely candidates.

Sterling still has three Sterling Express gas stations and convenience stores in the New Orleans area — on Gentilly Boulevard, Tchoupitoulas Street and the West Bank Expressway at Manhattan Boulevard.

Pierce said the Marrero store, a former Winn-Dixie at Lapalco and Ames Boulevard, was simply in a bad location, though he doesn’t think the store was harmed by nearby competitors, including a Wal-Mart.

He said the viability of a grocery store can come down to quixotic elements like visibility or a tricky intersection and that Winn-Dixie’s new Marrero location on the West Bank Expressway is doing fine.

Pierce said Budget Saver, the chain that Sterling brought in a month ago to manage the Marrero store, decided against trying to make a go of it there as well.

“It’s all a part of growing the business. We learned a lot, and we loved being in Marrero and look forward to doing something else there,” he said, adding that Avondale might prove to be a good West Bank location.

Pierce and Henry, a former mayoral candidate who has been friends with Pierce since childhood, said that while Sterling looked into all its options, it ultimately did not use any public money to open the Marrero store.

Pierce said more than 60 municipalities have contacted Sterling since the Lapalco store opened and that future locations will have a different business model, with public entities providing the location and Sterling operating a store on it.

They said the company doesn’t want to get into the real estate business and that bringing public entities to the table will spread the risk but still leave them with control of a physical asset.

“We learned a lot from the first store, and that’s one of the things we learned: If we’re going to do something as risky as it is, we felt the municipalities should have some skin in the game,” Pierce said.

Henry said there are a few more planned Sterling Express locations in the metro area that just have to be converted from their current operators.

Pierce said the convenience stores help build the market for a full-service store by increasing Sterling’s brand awareness. The convenience stores also help the company overall because they have wider profit margins than the grocery stores, he said.

Pierce and Henry also were involved in the post-Katrina redevelopment of New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Park subdivision, where Pierce grew up. Pierce said a resident-initiated community development corporation has built 35 homes out of a goal of 125.