There’s a new term coined by the federal government for places with low income and little access to quality food. It’s called a food desert.
And Maggie Valley is sitting right on the edge of one. The town doesn’t really qualify for the low-income component, but anyone who lives and works there will tell you the food access part is spot on.
However, if the town gives its nod of approval, that situation might improve.
A grocery store could be setting up shop on Soco Road, to the delight of residents who currently trek to Waynesville when the pantry runs dry.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Jeannie Shuckstes, a Maggie Valley dweller. “Anything to help the economy of Maggie I know is a plus, and everyone has to go into Waynesville to do any sort of shopping.”
She works in Waynesville, but lives in Maggie Valley, so she can hit the store on the way home from work without a special trip. But retirees, those who both work and live in the town and the tourists who populate the valley’s many vacation cabins, must venture out every time they need anything more than a loaf of bread or some lunch meat.
The town won’t be getting a shiny new Ingles, Bi-Lo or Food Lion. The proposed shop will be a locally owned endeavor housed in the cabin that was once the Bear’s Den restaurant.
There have long been rumors swirling that a big chain was eyeing the small town, said Nathan Clark, Maggie Valley’s planning director. But a smaller store with local appeal is just as good, he said.
“You have an entrepreneur like Ms. Weinstein coming in here trying to help the community, I think it’s going to be a really, really nice thing,” said Clark.
The aforementioned Ms. Weinstein is Bari Weinstein, the woman behind the new store.
Formerly, she ran the Bear’s Den in the same location. Now, she’s clearing out the tables and installing aisles, hoping to accommodate a request that she’s heard floating around the valley for years.
“My customers who are locals and my tourists customers have always said ‘Where’s the grocery store, why don’t we have a grocery store?’” said Weinstein. So after her restaurant closed its doors, she thought this was the year to fill that niche.
At first, she said, she’ll stock the basics and rely on her customers to fill her in on what they want and need.
That more personalized service, combined with the improved proximity, she hopes will bring her new venture success.
It’s the closeness, though, that’s the real selling point of the idea.
The closest actual grocery store is Ingles on Russ Avenue in Waynesville, and from the center of Maggie Valley, it’s a little more than eight miles, about 20 minutes one way, and the trip is much longer for those who live further along Soco Road or in one of the many circuitous subdivisions that pepper the valley’s mountainsides.
That means that even the most cursory jaunts for the essentials can take upwards of an hour.
There are a few closer options, the most comprehensive being the Dollar General that sits on the very edge of town, at the intersection of Jonathan Creek and Soco Road.
“That place, it’s the busiest thing that I see out there anymore,” said Shuckstes, when asked where she can go in town to pick up a few grocery items. “They’re doing great business.”
And in fact, that’s pretty much how Dollar General has made its money around the country, posting up in tiny communities with little in the way of retail other than fast food or gas stations, including Bethel and Beaverdam here in Haywood County.
But their business isn’t strictly food, and as a discount store, their offerings are constantly in flux.
A few convenience stores on both ends of Maggie Valley give their patrons a cooler or two of more substantial food than is usually found in a gas station — a gallon of milk here, some cold cuts and bread there. And in season, Duckett’s Produce has a well-stocked stand with a bounty of farm produce.
But as far as dedicated grocery stores go, Weinstein’s competition is nonexistent.
Some residents remember an A&P supermarket that once served locals and tourists, but it’s been gone so long the years have faded into one another. Did it close 10 years ago? Maybe 15?
Weinstein hoped to have the new, as-yet-unnamed establishment open by Labor Day, but fears she might be hamstrung by paperwork.
She does plan to have it open this autumn, though, and she’s hoping that the town will see the benefit her business would be to the valley.
“You know you have to listen, you can’t just hear, you have to listen to what your community wants,” she said.
For years, residents of Maggie Valley have been asking for a grocery store. And this year, they might finally receive.