Plum Market opens to mixed reactions from students

Nathan Lesch, Executive Editor

As rays of sunshine beamed down onto colorful shelves—meticulously organized and stacked high with foodstuffs—and employees frantically finished getting the newly retrofitted space ready, Case Western Reserve University administrators, Bon Appétit Management Company representatives and Plum Market Kitchen’s founders, Matt and Marc Jonna, celebrated the opening of University Circle’s new grocery store at a VIP event on March 10.

A day later, on March 11, two months after its initially scheduled launch, Plum Market opened its doors to a long-awaiting community. CWRU had been without an easily accessible grocery store since the closing of Constantino’s Market, a community staple since 2012, last spring. Located on the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 115th Street in the 12,000-square-foot storefront vacated by Constantino’s, Plum Market fills a similar niche, offering a wide variety of quality products at higher prices than other chain grocery stores like Costco or Aldi that focus on lower prices with less variety.

In addition to this new location, Plum Market operates 11 other grocery stores, entirely focusing on providing all-natural, organic foods to their customers. Although currently located primarily in the Midwest, Plum Market is planning to expand further, with California, Texas and Washington, D.C. locations on the way.

CWRU’s Plum Market location is a little different than most of Plum Market’s other grocery stores, though. Here, Bon Appétit, CWRU’s long-time food service provider, is essentially Plum Market Kitchen’s franchise owner, meaning that Bon Appétit operates the store. Bon Appétit has the authority to change the store’s stock, adjust prices and update the kitchen’s menu, for instance.

Bon Appétit’s close relationship with CWRU also meant that the two organizations searched for a grocer to serve University Circle together. Among its competitors, Plum Market initially stood out because Bon Appétit had already developed a relationship with the franchise and because the franchise had experience working with universities.

“[Bon Appétit] was already running a Plum Market,” explained Richard Jamieson, CWRU’s vice president for campus services. “We knew that [Plum Market] already operated at other universities.”

After learning more about Plum Market, CWRU administrators began to believe that the franchise could bring value to the community. Jamieson and other CWRU officials visited one of Plum Market’s Detroit locations before deciding to partner with the grocer. They liked what they saw. Plum Market’s willingness to offer meal plan options for breakfast and lunch through their café also appealed to CWRU, according to Jamieson.

Ultimately, it was Plum Market’s “multi-decade background in fresh, organic foods” that drove CWRU and Bon Appétit to bring the grocer in, according to Bon Appétit’s District Manager of Ohio, Dan Farrell. This dedication to quality foods fit perfectly with the small, neighborhood grocer that CWRU and Bon Appétit envisioned. 

Farrell explained this vision vividly. He imagined students and community members venturing out from their dorms and apartments to pore over Plum Market’s wares, purchasing only what they needed for the next few days. A chicken breast and some herbs, just enough to make dinner for a small group, was an example he gave of what he pictured Plum Market’s patrons buying from the grocer at one time.

In some areas, Plum Market is able to emulate the community-based grocers of the past. It has partnered with six local farms, including the CWRU University Farm, all within 150 miles of University Circle, to provide fresh foods and assist Northeast Ohio’s economy.

There are downsides to this quaint vision—offering quality, locally-sourced foods in low quantities means that prices tend to be high. Bon Appétit’s Plum Market managers are aware of this phenomenon. “[It’s a] delicate balance between price and value,” Farrell noted. “We’re here to offer value in a variety of products.” Farrell further explained that Plum Market and Walmart, for instance, don’t occupy the same niche. Bon Appétit’s ultimate goal is to best serve students, though, according to Farrell.

Still, many students are frustrated by the cost of Plum Market’s provisions. Alex Gould, CWRU Undergraduate Student Government’s (USG) vice president of public relations, said that USG recognizes these frustrations—many USG members are frustrated, themselves—and is working to provide students with lower-cost options.

“One of our biggest goals in USG this year has been tackling food insecurity,” Gould said. “After we put so much time and care into those initiatives, many of us within USG have, quite honestly, been feeling disheartened by the premium pricing and unique item selection at Plum Market. That being said, we have been listening to students and are actively working on methods to improve both of these factors.”

More specifically, USG is working with CWRU’s administration to create “a new station within the grocery store that will include solely cheaper items meant to fulfill basic needs for us college students,” according to Gould.

High costs were also a problem many students and community members had with Plum Market’s predecessor, Constantino’s. According to Farrell, Bon Appétit and CWRU were also cognizant of these concerns before ultimately deciding to go with the more expensive neighborhood grocer model. “We did consider [the prices of Constantino’s],” Farrell said. 

Starting with Plum Market’s meal plan options, several key aspects of the grocery store’s amenities were designed with community members, especially students, in mind. CWRU students have two meal swipe breakfast options at Plum Market: a breakfast sandwich or a yogurt parfait with berries and granola. Both options also come with a side and a drink. For lunch, CWRU students on the meal plan can choose between a variety of sandwiches, a salad, chicken tenders or an entrée, which means either a California roll or an avocado roll. Plum Market’s kitchen, the gleaming, industrial-looking operation where these meals are prepared, is located in the back of the store under a large sign. In the front of the store, a somewhat similar looking coffee bar lies adjacent to a little sitting area. Plum Market customers can eat their meals while watching the constant movement of cars and pedestrians outside.

These new amenities and options offered by Plum Market are appreciated by many students. “Personally, I’m incredibly glad a meal option exists at Plum Market,” Gould said. “It’s definitely a creative new way to utilize meal swipes and a great store feature which Constantino’s didn’t have.”

Plum Market’s CWRU location at 11473 Euclid Ave. is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturdays and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays.