PARSIPPANY — On paper, the deal seems like a no-brainer: Replace a dated grocery store on 3 acres of asphalt and replace it with a brand-new food market on a freshly landscaped lot.
Lidl, the European grocery giant currently expanding in the United States, wants to acquire the Foodtown property on North Beverwyck Road. The 30,600-square-foot, family-operated Foodtown, a former Grand Union store, has struggled for decades to compete with increasingly large competition but has a loyal following in the Lake Hiawatha section of the township.
Representatives for Lidl made their public pitch Monday during a four-hour Planning Board meeting. Attorney John Wyciskala, representing Lidl U.S. operations, said his client has a purchase-agreement contract with the owner of the property, Holly Gardens LLC, which leases the building to Foodtown.
Planning Board members mostly approved of the project and a rendering of the property, which showed a new 31,000-square-foot building to be built after the current structure is demolished.
But Roberto Laracca, who operates the store as a family business within the Foodtown cooperative grocery chain, objected to what he felt was the board's indicating the Foodtown closure was a done deal.
"Where did you get information that Foodtown was closing up?" Laracca said. "Last I looked, I have almost three years left on the lease. We had no idea this was going on."
Laracca spoke during the public session after the board heard from several Lidl representatives who explained the company's unique business model: providing mostly private-label goods to keep prices low and eliminating most onsite food packaging and preparation other than a bakery. Foodtown's popular fresh deli would be replaced by meats and cheeses sliced and vacuum-packaged offsite.
"There's a tremendous amount of senior citizens who go to that store only because they have shopped there for so long," area resident Trina Reid said. "They are known there by first names. The owners know what they are looking for, what they want."
Pharmacist and 30-year Parsippany resident Atta Rehman, who owns and operates the Lake Hiawatha Pharmacy inside the store as a Foodtown lessee, said he found out about the proposed Lidl purchase "the same way as everybody else," in a posting on a local news website about 12 days ago.
"People come here because we give them the kind of personal service they can't get elsewhere," Rehman said. "We care about them. We're part of the community. They don't want to go anywhere else."
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"I've been a customer of [Rehman] for over 10 years, and I cannot tell you the kind of stuff that this man does," Reid said. "When COVID hit us so badly, and people were afraid to go out of the house, he took it upon himself, at nighttime, to deliver orders."
Along with the Foodtown and pharmacy, the Lidl deal would displace the attached Bollywood Grill restaurant.
Board attorney Scott Carlson stressed, "This board is not moving the Foodtown out or away," but the owner has a right to sell.
"I don't know the details, but it certainly appears that Foodtown is leaving, which then raises the question: What could be there next?" Carlson said. "It could be high-density housing. It could be a lot of things the property owner seeks to do."
Parsippany Mayor Michael Soriano, who did not attend the meeting, said Tuesday that Laracca needs to take up his lease dispute with the property owner. Holly Gardens is owned by longtime Morris County developer Edward Mosberg.
"I understand and feel for Mr. Laracca," Soriano said. "He's in a difficult position."
Mosberg did not immediately respond to a message.
Soriano sees Foodtown or a similar grocery as an essential element of downtown Lake Hiawatha, where last week he announced $4 million in grants and funds acquired to make improvements to the area.
"The landlord came to the township and tried to float the idea he wasn't making enough money on that land, and wanted to build apartments there," Soriano said. "I thought that was a terrible idea. I know seniors who enjoy the walk to that Foodtown and don't want to go food shopping on Route 46. It's an amenity."
With Lidl already having the property under contract to purchase, pending approvals of variances and other considerations, Carlson indicated that the deal would move forward.
"It was apparent to me that the use is going to change here," Carlson said. "The property is going to change hands. It's getting new ownership."
Laracca objected to the board's indicating his fate was sealed.
"You just going to throw me out?" Laracca said. "How is that done? We don't want to close. You guys make these comments online with everybody listening that this store is closing. That's not true. I could lose all my employees because of what you said. It's crazy."
Three hours into the meeting, the board ended the discussion, carrying over the Lidl application to a meeting on Feb. 8. Pending approvals, Lidl representatives outlined a possible timeline of closing the sale in late spring or early summer, then closing for 12 to 18 months for construction.
The property is assessed at $2,913,800, according to government tax records, costing the owner $87,821.93 annually in taxes.
"What you're doing here is replacing a supermarket that has taken care of this town and the seniors specifically," Laracca said. "When COVID hit, we were here for them. We took orders by hand so we could bring them to their homes."
Laracca clarified his position in a Parsippany Facebook group that generated more than 500 comments on the pending sale.
"My family would love to stay in Lake Hiawatha. We do have some time left on the current lease," he wrote. "We have done our best to serve the local residents, especially during this rough time. Over the years our employees and customers have become like family to my family and I. It would be very difficult to say goodbye. It would especially be difficult for our hardworking union employees to lose their jobs."
William Westhoven is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.