Shoppers at the Johnnie’s Foodmaster on Beacon Street in Somerville Thursday had a difficult time accepting the news that the family-owned, no-frills store they depend on for bargain groceries may become an upscale Whole Foods supermarket.
“It’s a total shock,” said Barbara Palombo, 66, pushing a cart of groceries with her granddaughter. “My sister used to work here when she was 16, and she’s 61 now, so you do the math. It would be a great loss.”
According to several real estate officials with knowledge of the deal, Whole Foods Market is in talks with Johnnie’s Foodmaster to take over six of its 10 locations — in Arlington, Brookline, Charlestown, Melrose, and South Weymouth, along with the Beacon Street store. It was not immediately clear whether Johnnie’s Foodmaster, known for its retro decor — including carpeted aisles — and friendly service would continue to operate the remaining locations.
The chain was started in 1947 in East Cambridge by John DeJesus Sr. His son, John A. DeJesus, who now runs it, did not return a message seeking comment.
“I’ve been coming here for forever and a day,” said shopper Melanie Aeschliman. “At first I was thrown by the carpet on the floor, but I learned to love it. It’s just sad.”
Many customers at the Beacon Street store Thursday were long-time Cambridge or Somerville residents who said they dislike changes that have come to the neighborhood in recent years, especially the growing student population.
“A lot of old folks that used to go to Johnnie’s moved away,” said Palombo, who derided Whole Foods’ offerings as overpriced “yuppie food.”
‘My sister used to work here when she was 16. . . she’s 61 now, so you do the math. It would be a great loss.’
An existing Whole Foods less than a mile away on Prospect Street was crowded Thursday, its busy aisles a contrast to the relatively quiet Johnnie’s Foodmaster.
Some said the Somerville store is more than a grocery store, functioning as a place where neighbors catch up with each other in the parking lot or say hello to familiar faces from down the block as they shop.
“This neighborhood has a blue-collar underpinning and this store is part of that,” said Philip Cowan, 65, ticking off various items he could buy at a discount at Johnnie’s. “It’s a good place for general supplies . . . and they have the best hot Italian sausage I’ve ever eaten.”
If a Whole Foods does open on the site, some said, it might struggle to overcome a reputation for being expensive, at least among Johnnie’s Foodmaster shoppers. “People won’t come,” said Laurie Jackson, a Cambridge resident and Johnnie’s Foodmaster devotee. “We want a regular store.”
Pat Ramsey, another customer, said Johnnie’s Foodmaster fills a niche. “There are enough Whole Foods around,” he said. “People need a store they can go to where they know the people, where they know where things are.”
On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods said the company only reveals new locations in earnings reports.
A Johnnie’s Foodmaster employee who declined to give his name said Thursday that managers had not yet said spoken to workers about a possible sale. He said he was hopeful that Whole Foods would rehire Johnnie’s Foodmaster staff if the deal goes through. “When they take over, they keep the help, from what I hear about Whole Foods,” he said. “It’s a good place, but it’s a lot more expensive, and I’m sure there will be people who can’t afford it.”