Specialty food industry hungry for Nashua

It has been nearly 30 years since the grand opening of the Pheasant Lane Mall transformed Nashua into a destination city for retail shoppers, especially for those coming from our neighboring state to the south intent on not paying a sales tax.

Now, it appears Nashua could become a destination city of sorts for shoppers looking for something other than clothing, sporting gear and electronics: specialty foods.

In the past four days, The Telegraph has published stories about two specialty food market chains – one that just opened and another that could be at some point in the near future.

On Friday, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods Market confirmed long-running rumors that the company is actively seeking to open a store in Nashua, which would be its first in the state. Three days later, Trader Joe’s opened its first New Hampshire grocery store at the site of the former DSW shoe store in Webster Square on Daniel Webster Highway.

If the Whole Foods store were to come to pass, Nashua would become ground zero for the specialty foods industry in New Hampshire, one of the fastest-growing in the country.

Between 2009 and 2011, sales of specialty foods rose by a healthy 19.1 percent, exceeding most sectors of the U.S. economy, according to the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, the industry’s trade association. In 2011, sales of specialty foods reached $75.1 billion, representing 13.7 percent of all food sales at retail locations.

For Trader Joe’s, the trip to Nashua was a relatively short one – less than a mile from its former 440 Middlesex Road location just over the state line in Tyngsborough, Mass. (adjacent to the AMC movie theater), to its new home at 262 Daniel Webster Highway.

In doing so, Trader Joe’s was able to nearly double its floor space to 9,850 square feet – still small by traditional grocery store standards today – and become the first of two such stores planned to open in New Hampshire this year. The other is scheduled to open Sept. 7 in Portsmouth.

The first Trader Joe’s opened in 1967 in Pasadena, Calif., which remains open at the same location. Today, there are roughly 375 stores spread across 33 states and the District of Columbia with sales for the year that ended July 1 expected to approach $9.5 billion, up $1 billion from the previous year. That’s good for No. 22 on the list of the nation’s top food retailers.

As for Whole Foods – No. 20 on that same list with $10.1 billion in sales from more than 310 stores in North America and the United Kingdom – the natural food chain has professed an interest in locating here for a few years now.

Four years ago, in fact, Whole Foods was expected to be the anchor tenant at Nashua Landing, the state’s first so-called “lifestyle center.” The 600,000-square-foot development was to have been built on the old Hampshire Chemical Corp. site along the Merrimack River in south Nashua and consist of retail shops, restaurants and a movie theater. Unfortunately, the developers were forced to pull the plug on the entire project because of the Great Recession.

Heather McCready, a public relations manager for the company, would not say last week where it was looking in Nashua or when such a store might open.

But if it does, coupled with this week’s opening of Trader Joe’s, Nashua will have carved out yet another niche in the all-important retail market.