Organic Foods Leader Will Open a Store in Mandarin; Whole Foods Market Will Move into a Former Publix on San Jose Boulevard in '08

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Byline: DIANA MIDDLETON

Whole Foods Market, the nation's largest organic and natural food retailer, will open its first Jacksonville location in Mandarin.

It's been a long time coming.

The 50,000-square-foot Whole Foods will take the place of a former Publix location at the Mandarin-area shopping center on San Jose Boulevard. Doron Valero, landlord of the Mandarin Landing shopping center which will house the location, said the demolition of the empty Publix store is scheduled to begin in May. Valero, who is also president and chief operating officer of Equity One, a real estate investment group, said the Whole Foods is slated to open by the second quarter of 2008.

The lease agreement marks the end of Whole Foods' years-long search for a suitable Jacksonville site and is a big step toward redeveloping the 1970s-era shopping center. The store will include a hefty produce department, a butcher, a fresh fish counter, and ready-made sandwiches as well as a selection of natural shampoos, toothpastes and cosmetics.

"We're very excited about coming to Jacksonville," said Juan Nunez, president of Whole Foods' Florida region. "We've been looking at the area for years."

The news thrilled Scott Baity and Lanier Drew, who joined forces more than a year ago to create an online petition urging Whole Foods to set up shop in the San Marco area. (The petition at www.wholefoodsjax.com has received more than 1,000 signatures thus far.)

Even though there are no official plans for Whole Foods to open more locations in the area, both Baity and Drew said the new store may open the area for more stores in the future.

They aren't alone in their enthusiasm. Organic products are of growing importance to consumers, according to the Organic Trade Association, a group that counts organic farmers, retailers and distributors as its members. The association says organic food and beverage sales totaled $13.8 billion last year -- a 16 percent jump from the previous year. Holly Givens, a spokeswoman for the organization, said consumers are buying more organic products because they are more consistent with their families' values.

That's a feeling echoed in the results of a 2005 survey conducted by the Natural Marketing Institute, which found that 71 percent of shoppers who purchased organic packaged foods (excluding produce) chose organic because they believed it was healthier for their families.

Andy Hofheimer, a broker at Jacksonville-based retail developer Regency Centers, was charged with developing a Jacksonville development plan for Whole Foods. He said the Mandarin Landing's proximity to the soon-to-be-completed I-295 road system made the location particularly attractive. Meanwhile, Valero said the arrival of Whole Foods will also facilitate the Mandarin Landing's addition of other national and regional tenants catering to upscale customers, like wine shops, beauty spas and vitamin stores.

"This was a situation where the stars lined up," Valero said. …