A Whole Foods store that will open in Veterans Memorial...

A Whole Foods store that will open in Veterans Memorial Plaza in Commack in April is seen on Wednesday. Credit: Jeff Bachner

After two years without a full-service grocery store, Veterans Memorial Plaza in Commack will be back in the game this spring.

On April 3, Whole Foods Market’s fourth Long Island store will open in the shopping center, in most of the space  that was occupied by a King Kullen supermarket  before it closed in March 2017.

“We look forward to providing our customers with a variety of products to meet all of their needs, while also offering the highest quality service and providing a neighborhood gathering space,” Lorraine Barker, Whole Foods store team leader, said in a statement.

Since the King Kullen in Commack closed, grocers’ fight for Long Island’s customer dollars has grown fiercer.

Among other changes, the Bethpage-based King Kullen chain is in the process of being sold to Stop & Shop, which is owned by Dutch company Ahold Delhaize. And Best Market, also based in Bethpage, sold 27 stores in New York and New Jersey, including 24 on the Island, to the U.S. arm of German discount grocer Lidl in January.

Meanwhile, Whole Foods, owned by Seattle-based online retail giant Amazon, might be just getting started on Long Island.

Not only is Whole Foods planning to open a fifth Long Island store, in Garden City next year, but, according to a retail expert, the Commack store represents the grocer's shift in focus to more fresh and prepared food and general merchandise, and less on in-store saloons and beer pubs.

“It’s the first store to open in the U.S. where Amazon has had primary influence on the blueprint and the layout of the store to make it much more successful under Jeff Bezos and Amazon than they were under [CEO] John Mackey and Whole Foods,” said retail expert Burt Flickinger III, who founded Manhattan-based Strategic Resource Group and has studied Long Island retail.

 Whole Foods said Flickinger's characterization was incorrect. "Every store we open is uniquely designed by Whole Foods Market for the specific community it will serve," a company representative said Thursday.

Opening at 120 Veterans Memorial Hwy. in April, the Whole Foods in Commack will have fresh produce, full-service butcher and seafood departments; an in-house bakery; a hot and cold prepared foods section; coffee and juice bars; beer from local producers; and 142 bins of bulk scoop items, according to a Whole Foods statement.

The store also will have a fast-casual eatery that will serve wine and locally brewed beer on tap.

The Commack store will employ about 200 full- and part-time employees and occupy 45,000 square feet, or 75 percent, of the former 60,000-square-foot King Kullen space.

Amazon bought Whole Foods in August 2017 for $13.7 billion. The company, founded in Austin, Texas, in 1980, has 498 stores in North America and the United Kingdom, 96 percent of which are in the United States.

The grocer sets itself apart from competitors by offering customers an “experience,” said Jon Hauptman, senior director of Inmar Analytics, a  grocery industry analytics firm in North Carolina.

“While they are now offering an impressive [selection] of budget-stretching options in many categories, they offer high-end, premium-priced fresh and prepared foods, which creates a ‘high-end’ experience,” he said.

Plaza turnover

Built in the late 1990s, Veterans Memorial Plaza was without a full-service grocery store for the first time when King Kullen closed in 2017. The 386,000-square-foot shopping center includes a Target, a Hobby Lobby arts and crafts store and an L.A. Fitness.

The property has seen some tenant turnover of large spaces in recent years due to retailers’ bankruptcies or groups of store closures, rather than issues with the shopping center, said Joshua Weinkranz, president of the northern region for Kimco Realty Corp., the New Hyde Park-based owner of the shopping center. (Target owns its parcel.)

A 42,970-square-foot Sports Authority in the shopping center closed in summer 2016 after the parent company’s bankruptcy filing. Hobby Lobby opened in that space in June 2017.

This fall, Burlington and Five Below will take a total of about 51,525 square feet, or 82 percent, of the 63,000-square-foot space in  the plaza that had been occupied by Toys R Us/Babies R Us, which closed last summer after the parent company’s demise.

King Kullen Grocery Co. closed its store in the shopping center and one in Syosset in 2017 because they were underperforming, the company said.

Filling those large spaces wasn’t difficult because Veterans Memorial Plaza is located well and has a good tenant mix and strong area demographics in terms of high resident population and household income, Weinkranz said.

Though King Kullen was one of the shopping center’s original tenants and its only full-service grocery store — Target sells some groceries — its closing didn’t significantly hurt traffic at the property, he said.

“That store never ... really drew a tremendous amount of traffic,” he said.

Weinkranz expects the story to be different for Whole Foods.

“Their product mix is better, and they’re very attuned to the local customer. You can see how well they do at their other locations by the customer traffic they generate," he said.

Kimco also owns the Jericho and Manhasset shopping centers that have Whole Foods stores. The grocer also has a store in Lake Grove.

Retail Roundup is a column about major retail news on Long Island — store openings, closings, expansions, acquisitions, etc. — that is published online and in the Monday paper. To read more of these columns, click here. If you have news to share, please send an email to Newsday reporter Tory N. Parrish at tory.parrish@newsday.com.

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