On Saturday, TeacherPatti posted a Tweet about the upcoming closing of Bello Vino Marketplace, and on Monday The Chronicle took the #2 AATA bus to the Plymouth Mall store to check things out. If you didn’t already know the grocery was set to close on Jan. 15, the empty or thinly-stocked shelves would be your first clue. Or you might notice the grim-faced employees – one of them told The Chronicle that they were informed of the decision on Friday, the day after Christmas. “It was kind of a slap in the face,” she said.
There’s a sign on the entrance, and letters to customers are getting passed out at the checkout stands. (The same message was posted on their website on Monday – the full text is at the end of this article). The owners attribute the store’s closing to current economic conditions. They are looking for a different space to continue selling wine and beer, but they haven’t yet found a new location.
Meanwhile, Bello Vino’s remaining stock is deeply discounted – 50% for produce and cheese, 25% off meat and seafood, 40% off coffee and candy. On Monday morning, there was still a decent selection of beer, wine, meat and dairy, but the produce section was nearly depleted. It didn’t appear that anything was being restocked throughout the store.
Lou Ferris opened Bello Vino in the space formerly occupied by Merchant of Vino, which was bought by Whole Foods in 1997 and moved out of the Plymouth Mall in late 2002. He owns a farm in Superior Township, which at one point supplied up to 30 percent of Bello Vino’s produce, according to a 2007 Ann Arbor News article.
Two years ago, Ferris spoke at a planning commission public hearing and told the group that he’d invested heavily in the store but that it basically just broke even, according to planning commission minutes. That was true until this past year, when the downturn in the economy really took its toll, said Jennifer Ferris, vice president of the holding company Federated Capital Corp., through which her father owns Bello Vino and several other businesses.
(As an aside, Federated Capital Corp. also owns Great Lakes Central Railroad. That railroad operates trains on the state-owned tracks that run from Ann Arbor through Howell. Ferris has been working with the city of Ann Arbor to push for a north/south commuter rail service. In mid-2006 he hosted a group of community leaders on a train ride from Ann Arbor to Eight Mile Road in Northfield Township, to demonstrate the feasibility of the route. That project is still moving forward, Jennifer Ferris said. “We have a very big interest in commuter rail.”)
The decision to close Bello Vino was “very, very hard,” Jennifer Ferris said. The cost of food is rising, customers have been cutting back on their food budgets, and the market was over-saturated with grocery stores, she said, though she didn’t single out any one specific competitor. In Ann Arbor, Whole Foods opened a second store this fall at the corner of Ann Arbor-Saline and Eisenhower, and in February Plum Market opened its first store locally at the corner of Maple and Dexter-Ann Arbor. Both specialty groceries are direct competitors with Bello Vino.
Plymouth Mall is owned by Vern Hutton. Jeff Hutton, the mall’s property manager, says they’re pursuing another grocery store, but are in the very preliminary stages. Before Bello Vino’s decision to leave, the mall had a vacancy rate of less than 10%, he said. The biggest previous vacancies were caused by the departure this summer of the Ann Arbor District Library, which left after opening the nearby Traverwood branch, and Norton’s Flowers & Gifts. Those spots are still empty.
It’s a tough time to find a new tenant, Hutton said. In general, the economy has been hard on existing tenants, who’ve struggled for two years since the announced departure of Pfizer – the pharmaceutical’s large research campus is located across the street from Plymouth Mall. The University of Michigan recently announced plans to purchase the Pfizer site, but that deal isn’t expected to close until the summer of 2009.
Finally, as promised, here’s the text of a letter that Bello Vino is distributing to customers:
With deep sadness, we regret to inform you that we will be shutting our doors on January 15. Five years ago this January, we opened with a dream and a hope of providing the freshest gourmet food to our community. It has been a remarkable journey as we have come to know the people and local businesses of Ann Arbor. Through our relationships with our customers and farmers, we have stayed passionate about local, sustainable, unique and delicious foods.
We are currently in the process of seeking a space to continue our Wine and Beer Departments. You will surely be aware if we are successful in that endeavor.
For the past year we have tried various strategies to make it through the current economic downturn. The decision to close our store was not an easy one. We understand the impact it will have on our distributors, local growers, employees and customers.
Thank you for your patronage, support and friendly faces that we have come to recognize and know throughout the last five years. It is our hope to return to the food community of Ann Arbor in the future.
Until then, thank you for your support and patronage.
The Staff and Family of Bello Vino Marketplace