In mid-September, New Seasons Market announced plans to open a new store in the historic heart of the Central District on 23rd and Union in 2018. The Portland-based market, which sells locally-grown and organic produce in addition to other kitchen staples, will be an anchor tenant for local developer Lake Union Partner’s new project, which will also include mixed-income housing.
New Seasons’ announcement came just two weeks before the neighborhood’s locally-owned Red Apple grocery store closed after 33 years of business. Without Red Apple, New Seasons will become the most centrally located market in the Central District. While some may welcome the upscale store's opening, others see New Seasons as another sign of gentrification and displacement that is happening in the historically black community.
Central District resident Laurie Rosello-Torres, who works at the neighborhood’s LGBTQ Allyship center, expressed concerns that “we’re bringing in grocery stores that are higher end, that are not [carrying] accessible goods” in the midst of rapid displacement of residents of color.
Kevin Allen, a Central District resident and member of the Coalition for Black Trade Unionists, described Red Apple as a community hub where he and neighbors would often pick up fried catfish and greens after church. The demise of the community market is yet another sign that the “flavor of the area is going to be changed.”
In February 2016, told The Oregonian wrote that New Seasons Chief Development Officer Jerry Chevassus strategy for growing the company involves "[targeting] neighborhoods in the process of gentrification, and often, “the addition of a New Seasons will push rents and home values higher, adding to that process.”
When e-mailed for comment, New Seasons representatives told The Stranger that “gentrification is a reality in Portland and Seattle and was long before New Seasons opened the doors of our first store in 2000.” They continued:
Our neighborhood grocery store model offers choice and actively responds to what our neighbors want. Because of our staff, product selection, and respect for the needs, history and authenticity of the community, our stores often become a neighborhood hub that brings people together. There is a need for a grocery store to serve the Central District community and we believe New Seasons is the right fit for this community.
In a subsequent e-mail, representatives later noted that The Oregonian did not directly quote Chevassus.
“Rather, it's the reporter's characterization of what he said, and that characterization was not accurate,” the representative wrote. “Our approach to selecting locations for our stores is not based on trying to gentrify neighborhoods. Rather, we seek to pick communities that are growing and thriving, and share our values around healthy food and healthy communities.”
Representatives also stated that the company has a “longstanding tradition” of hiring from communities in which their stores open, which “is the best way to create a true sense of vitality and community in the neighborhoods we serve.”
In a press release announcing New Seasons’ Central District opening, company representatives said they expected to bring 100 new jobs to the neighborhood as part of their mission to hire from within the communities their stores are located. The store will partner with the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle for the recruiting.
New Seasons drew criticism from a number of labor groups because it is not unionized. In a letter to company CEO Wendy Collie, labor groups and city representatives, including mayoral candidate Cary Moon, wrote that “New Seasons employment practices are substandard compared to established standards in Seattle’s grocery industry.”
“Over the years, grocery workers in our community have won living wages, affordable healthcare, secure retirement benefits and the right to advocate for better working conditions,” the letter reads. “All grocery stores in our city should meet high industry standards that ensure healthy, stable lives for workers and their families. In a region struggling with rising economic inequality, maintaining established standards and defending workers’ rights are key to keeping our local economy sustainable for all.”
In an e-mail to community members, Lake Union Partners Principal Patrick Foley encouraged people to “do your own independent research.”
“We have spoken with many of [New Seasons’] employees + customers, and came to learn that they are a loved store in the City of Portland,” he wrote. “Please know that Lake Union Partners’ reputation is very important to us, and we would not make a major decision to bring a store like this to your neighborhood if we didn’t believe they are good quality people who treat their employees and customers with respect and kindness.”
A Portland New Seasons employee, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job, said that although the company “went in with good intentions” when they hired from within their predominantly black neighborhood, employees of color rarely received promotions and often faced microaggressions. They remembered one employee, a Black woman who styled her hair in braids and wore hoop earrings and clean Jordans sneakers was told her style was “too flashy,” although she dressed similarly to her white coworkers. The woman was eventually fired after her schedule was changed at the last minute, the employee said.
Although the company offers diversity training, the classes are not mandatory and are often “disorganized” and difficult to attend when they’re held during working hours, they said.
“Culture clashes aren’t handled in a way that’s progressive or forward-thinking,” the employee said. “[New Seasons is] not used to having discussions about race or gentrification. There’s a huge culture rift.”
Although there may be many employees of color working as cashiers, dishwashers, and housekeepers, “you won’t see that diversity reflected in upper management or leadership roles,” the employee claimed.
New Seasons representatives denied those allegations, saying that they “do not line up with our policies and the feedback we hear from our staff” and that company officials “foster a culture where staff have an active voice in their stores and the company to shape our culture and policies − and be involved in decisions that affect them.” They also cited the company’s recognition as Forbes’ third best mid-sized company to work for in the nation in 2017.
Aside from representation, the Portland New Seasons employee also said the company’s pricing may be out of touch with gentrifying communities.
“We have employees who can’t afford to shop in our store, even with a discount,” they said. “Products are overpriced.”
Seattle’s United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 21, which represents grocery and retail workers and opposes the New Seasons’ Central District store, conducted a price comparison between products found at the market’s Mercer Island store and a nearby Safeway. The group found that shoppers looking for products such as milk, eggs, orange juice, and ground beef could see about a $7 total price difference between the two stores.
“This does nothing to alleviate the concerns about economic concerns and does nothing to strengthen the community,” Rosello-Torres said. “If anything, it weakens it because you’re putting people in an economic food desert if they can’t access healthy food at a reasonable price.”
Africatown co-founder K. Wyking Garrett, who is working with Lake Union Partners on a community land trust across the street from the planned New Seasons site, said he hopes the groups can work towards “inclusive development decisions” for the neighborhood.
“We’re concerned and we want the best outcomes for the community that’s been here and is facing displacement,” he said.