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Crowds line up in advance to shop at state’s first Whole Foods

NASHUA – The curious and the hungry lined up early outside the state’s first Whole Foods Market in Nashua on Tuesday morning, as the doors opened for business.

Whole Foods hired Nashua police officers to help deal with the expected traffic, but even so, cars backed up Route 101A as early as 9 a.m., a half-hour before opening, due to the crush of fans. ...

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NASHUA – The curious and the hungry lined up early outside the state’s first Whole Foods Market in Nashua on Tuesday morning, as the doors opened for business.

Whole Foods hired Nashua police officers to help deal with the expected traffic, but even so, cars backed up Route 101A as early as 9 a.m., a half-hour before opening, due to the crush of fans.

Connor Strobel, 22, of Nashua was first in line. He waited for the festivities to start sitting in a camp chair in front of the large crowd.

“One, I had vacation days I had to use up, and two, I think it’s important to kind of support institutions or ventures that help to bring a healthier access to food to communities, especially when Nashua is pretty deficient compared to other places in the area,” he said. “I try as best I can to go to farmers markets and things like that. ... Hopefully, now this will give an opportunity for a lot of people to participate in the local economy,” said Strobel.

Among those at the scene was Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau, who praised the improvements to Turnpike Plaza, which opened in 1965, anchored by now-defunct department store Rich’s.

“What they’ve done to this plaza, particularly for those of us that have been here over the years, (since) back in the Rich’s days, it’s really phenomenal,” Lozeau said.

Turnpike Plaza was sold last month for $27 million to Chop Acquisition, a Boston-based LLC. That firm said the arrival of Whole Foods was a factor in the purchase and the relatively high price per square foot.

As opening time approached traffic moved relatively smoothly into the plaza’s lot, despite caution tape preventing use of some of the spaces and lanes. A stand-alone Papa Gino’s restaurant was torn down this year to make more room for parking.

Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods is known for its upscale products with an emphasis on healthy, organic and local foods. As an example, it will be main sponsor for Nashua’s Main Street Farmers Dinner in September, a kick-off to restaurant week in downtown Nashua.

Although critics call the store “Whole Paycheck” because of prices, this emphasis has driven strong growth for years.

Whole Foods plans to open its second New Hampshire location in downtown Portsmouth in 2016, and a third in Bedford sometime after that. Its nearest store to Nashua is in Andover, Mass. It has 35 stores in the Northeast, out of about 380 in the United States and Canada.

Rumors of the company coming to Nashua have been buzzing for years, and when it confirmed last year that it would replace a former Market Basket in Turnpike Plaza, at 225 Amherst St., interest spiked.

When the time came Tuesday morning, company and city officials broke a large loaf of bread as the crowd cheered. The store’s doors were thrown open and people streamed in.

John Bill stood in the produce section just inside the front door, looking at the crush of people fanning out into the aisles and moving carefully with a cane. Bill said he came Tuesday, “just seeing what the store’s like. I won’t shop here normally because it’s too far from the transit stop. I’m not going to try and carry groceries from here to there while using a cane.”

“I’ll pick up a little stuff because Market Basket doesn’t really have squat for produce,” he said.

Dennis Chesley of the New Hampshire Mushroom Company stood behind a table with various mushrooms in cardboard boxes open for inspection. People paused to talk with him and look over his offerings.

Chesley said he was excited about becoming a Whole Foods vendor. He attended a supplier summit in Concord this summer, at which Whole Foods signed up area suppliers.

Chesley said his mushroom company works directly with 100 restaurants in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, plus farmers markets and wholesalers. Whole Foods is the only grocer he works with directly.

“Local is very important to us,” he said. “You know when people think of New Hampshire they think Live Free or Die, but they also think clean air and a good high standard of living and all that stuff.”

Nearby, David Chirlin and Gail Linder of Litchfield walked slowly around the meat department. They said they’ve been shopping at the Bedford, Massachusetts Whole Foods store for 10 years and were happy to have a closer alternative.

“We’ve been waiting for 10 years for this to happen,” said Chirlin.

Healthy eating is what motivates them to shop there. “We can get stuff here we can’t get anywhere else,” he said.

Whole Foods said is donating a portion of its profits to area non-profits and has focused its first efforts on agencies that serve meals to those in need, including the YMCA, Boys and Girls Club of Greater Nashua and the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter.

The opening comes in a chaotic time for local supermarkets due to the ongoing standoff among the owners of Market Basket. Whole Foods has said that turmoil had no bearing on Whole Foods’ plans, since it announced the arrival in Nashua well before it began.

Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590 or dhimsel@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Himsel on Twitter (@Telegraph_DonH).