‘Puts Albury on the map’: what a huge supermarket means for a small city

Lifestyle

We’re greeted at the entrance by an enormous smiling strawberry. We’re hot with collective anticipation and it’s gleaming at us like Reg Mombassa has designed the Colossus of Rhodes. Foot traffic backs up as we collectively reckon with the scale of the place.

Children mung on free bananas in the playground, their parents sip lattes and, in the distance, the line for fresh donuts snakes through the confrontingly-priced granola section. A family stand in the cold of the dairy, challenging one another to inhale the most foot-evoking European cheeses. There’s a pavilion devoted to potato varieties, appropriately titled the “Spud Pavilion”.

It was late January, a softly sunny Friday, and the official opening of Harris Farm Markets in Albury was popping off.

I was going nuts too: bulk-purchasing half-price d’Affinois; giddily squeezing the purportedly imperfect avos ($8 a kilo and they’re Hass); and convincing myself that a $13 jar of basil sugo is a reasonable purchase.

True Harris Farm heads remember this day, simply, as The Opening.

A new supermarket may sound mundane, but in a small place – Albury-Wodonga has around 100,000 people – a shop like this matters. Particularly when it’s an experimental model of shopping designed to emulate the greatest markets in the world, housed in a 4,400 sq metre former Bunnings, with a fit-out Harris Farm co-CEO Luke Harris says cost around $10m.

There are the economic measurables: Harris says the Albury shop has employed about 150 people and is sourced from “hundreds” of local producers. Carrick Gill-Vallance, the general manager at Albury Business Connect, agrees it’s a “massive” economic injection.

There’s tourism too. Leonie Oakes, 59, was visiting a friend who took her to Albury’s best sites: the art gallery, botanical gardens, river walks, and – now – Harris Farm. She was impressed. “I live near the Leichhardt [Harris Farm],” she says, “but this one is more like the Easter show food hall than a veg shop.”

A grocery store that leaves city-dwellers impressed was once unimaginable. When I moved here from inner-city Sydney a decade ago, it felt like I’d been dunked in a culinary deprivation tank; Hungry Jack’s was probably Albury’s sixth best restaurant, and a spud from Daisy’s Baked Potato was the best dish in town.

In the opposite of an “empty eskies” campaign, my partner and I would spend Sydney trips visiting Ashfield, Lakemba and Newtown to stock up, stuffing freezer bags full of pastizzi, mock meats and industrial tubs of garlic dip.

We weren’t the only ones, but now “you don’t need to go to Melbourne or Sydney to do your shopping – it’s all here”, says Gill-Vallance. That “puts Albury on the map”.

Those responses are exactly what Harris was after when he chose Albury as the location for his Whole Foods or Waitrose-style high-end supermarket experiment. “I call [the Albury store] the lighthouse on the hill,” he says. “This is what we’re striving to get to.”

Lighthouse or not, you’d be right to think enthusiasm for a “shopping experience” designed by a massive retailer might not be shared by all.

“It’s good for the supermarket duopoly to have competition, and good that they’re promoting reuse of containers,’’ says Albury’s deputy mayor, Amanda Cohn. “But they’re still a large corporate chain, and many of their products are imported from overseas.”

Gill-Villance says some local business owners are “pretty worried”. Two local businesses refused to comment for this piece. I understand their concern: before Harris Farm, I used to visit seven different businesses for my weekly grocery shop. I haven’t spent a cent in any of them since.

Luke Harris says his intent is to support local businesses, not “put the boot in”. When they were setting Albury up, a co-worker suggested Sydney-based Salt Meat Cheese come on board as a supplier; Harris instead went with local producers such as Murray River Smokehouse and Milawa Bread.

“The no-brainer in a country town is to tap into the local food,” Harris says. “How Coles and Woolworths have been here for a hundred years and missed that shocks me.”

Unavoidably, a major chain store opening in a pretty small city might force some small businesses to adapt or suffer. Still, Gill-Valance says, “that’s competition, and competition is healthy” – particularly when he notes “regional Australia is being looked at all across the country, both state and federal, to be a catalyst for that [post-pandemic] economic recovery”.

For most, of course, it’s just a really good shop.

Emma O’Donnell, 29, has visited twice. “The shop hasn’t had any real impact on my life,” she says. “But I do like the dips.”