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Online campaign pushes for Trader Joe's in Charleston

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Putting a new spin on an old phrase, a group of grocery chain aficionados hoping to attract a national specialty-foods chain: "If you like it, they will come."

If you 'Like' it on Facebook, they mean.

In April, South Charleston resident Miguella Mark-Carew, 30, helped launch a Facebook campaign to get her favorite grocery store, Trader Joe's, to consider opening a store in West Virginia.

In just a few months, more than 3,900 people have signed up to join her "Bring Trader Joe's to Charleston, WV" by liking the campaign's page on Facebook, located at www.facebook.com/BringTJsToCharlestonWV.

Mark-Carew, an epidemiologist who grew up in New York, was inspired to start the site after moving to West Virginia last September to take a job with the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

While she likes the job, she doesn't like the fact that the nearest Trader Joe's -- a local staple near her former home in upstate New York -- is located more than 130 miles away in Columbus, Ohio.

"I started 'Bring Trader Joe's to Charleston, WV' out of frustration of having to travel over a hundred miles to get groceries from my favorite store," Mark-Carew said.

Trader Joe's is far from the typical grocery store Americans are accustomed to.

Founded in Pasadena, Calif. in 1958, the privately held grocery store chain specializes in gourmet, organic, gluten-free and specialty food products.

While most grocery stores can stock 50,000 items, Trader Joe's carries about 3,000, 80 percent of which are its own private-label brands. The company says it targets high-value, high-quality foods that are also environmentally friendly.

"I really like the store. It caters to my health needs," Mark-Carew said.

Though not a strict vegetarian, she said she prefers to eat foods that don't have meat. She also prefers to avoid the typical fillers you might find in products in the frozen foods section of a traditional grocery store.

"(Trader Joe's) frozen options that you heat up in a microwave are simpler and healthier," she said.

Though nearly 4,000 people have signed on to the campaign in less than four months, Trader Joe's executives have yet to be swayed. The company has no current plans to build a store in West Virginia.

"Charleston, West Virginia, is not in our two-year plan at this time," said Alison Mochizuki, a company spokeswoman.

The Charleston campaign is by no means unique. Huntington has a page -- which has surpassed Charleston by more than 4,000 'Likes' -- and similar pages can be found in most major cities in states that don't already have a Trader Joe's location.

While social media campaigns have been known to sway corporate decisions -- NBC has granted new seasons to shows like "Chuck" and "Community" on the strength of those campaigns -- Trader Joe's may be harder to affect.

The company is actually one of a handful of national chains that does not have an official account on Facebook or Twitter.

Mochizuki said while the company appreciates the interest, it isn't a factor in deciding where to build future stores.

"We are so appreciative of our fans and customers," she said. "It's really nice to be wanted, but wooing does not go into our decision-making process for selecting a location."

Mark-Carew said she doesn't fully believe that.

She said the company recently decided to open a store in Boise, Idaho after a social media campaign showed consumers there had interest in the chain. That store has since proven successful.

She believes something similar could happen at a Charleston location. She said the city is ideally located at a near equal distance from existing stores in surrounding states.

She also said Charleston has access to the state's three major interstates, making it easier for people to travel to a new store from surrounding areas.

In her job, Mark-Carew compiles state health care and disease statistics that point to a need for the store.

She said given the prevalence of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and celiac disease in the state, consumers need to find healthier food alternatives -- which is what Trader Joe's promotes.

"It's exposing people to different types of foods," she said. "I think that will open up people to a whole new mindset on how to eat and a what foods are available to eat."

Ric Cavender, East End Main Street director, said his organization hired a market analysis firm to evaluate the possibility of a new grocery store in that part of town three years ago.

The firm was asked specifically if a chain like Trader Joe's or Whole Foods would fit in the area.

"At the time, they told us you might not want to start with some of the high-end chains due to the current demographic situation," Cavender said.

While he personally thinks a Trader Joe's would do well in the East End, Cavender said the city had to realize the local age and income statistics didn't yet make the area look appealing.

Analysts also said high-end brands like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods now also ask for significant tax concessions from local and state governments as a condition of building new stores.

Cavender said the study proved the East End needs and can support a grocery chain. He also knows residents would prefer some type of organic, environmentally friendly options.

He said his organization would continue its attempts to recruit a grocery store to fill those needs.

"We're going to continue to recruit what makes sense for our district and what's going to continue to build the character of the community," Cavender said. "That's our focus."

Meanwhile, Mark-Carew said she's not giving up on her quest. She thinks that by continuing to lobby the company, and educating the public about healthy food options, eventually a company like Trader Joe's will come around.

"I think that, realistically, in five years it could happen," she said. "There are positive changes happening in that I think will make Trader Joe's realize the chance they're missing in West Virginia."

Contact writer Jared Hunt at business@dailymail.com or 304-348-4836.

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