While corporate grocery giants seem to rule the land, Santa Cruz-based New Leaf Community Markets has sneaked into Silicon Valley without much fanfare with a new store in San Jose’s Evergreen neighborhood, giving the bigger and better-known Whole Foods Market a run for its money.

Rex Stewart, New Leaf’s co-owner and general manager, said the company saw an opportunity in Evergreen, a community in southeast San Jose.

“I believe it was a neighborhood that didn’t have a place to shop, and that kind of bothered us,” he said. “It was like an upscale food desert in a way.”

Like bookstores, record shops and newspapers, the independently owned grocery store must struggle to stay alive. While there are a few exceptions (hello, Gene’s Fine Foods), the independent grocer is becoming an endangered species in Silicon Valley and beyond.

After 63 years of business, Cosentino’s Markets closed its handful of Silicon Valley-based grocery stores last year. The family of owners wanted to retire and were feeling the pressure from deep-pocketed stores like Costco, Safeway, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods and other heavies in the supermarket business. 

The closure of Cosentino’s followed that of PW Markets, another Silicon Valley-based chain of grocery stores. PW Markets called it quits in 2010 after nearly 70 years of business.

While big-box stores like Costco and Wal-Mart can drive small stores out of business, Stewart said New Leaf has been able to thrive in the organic, natural foods niche. He said New Leaf competes with Whole Foods by trying to create an enjoyable shopping experience and striving to become part of the community.

The store donates 10 percent of its profits to local groups and gives employees two paid days to work for local nonprofits and community groups of their choice.

“Community is in our name,” Stewart told me. “We try to make connections and give back. We try to make the store more than just a grocery store.”

The new store on Silver Creek Valley Road is located where one of the closed PW Markets was. New Leaf operates five markets in Santa Cruz County and one in Half Moon Bay. Another store is in the works in Pleasanton.

The roots of the store go back to 1985 when Santa Cruz resident Scott Roseman purchased the floundering Our Neighborhood Food Co-Op. The store became the Westside Community Market and then New Leaf Community Market. Roseman owns the company along with Stewart.

The Evergreen store is out of the way unless you live in the Silver Creek/Evergreen neighborhood, but it’s a refreshing change. It’s smaller than your typical Safeway or Whole Foods but is stocked with higher-quality food and products. New Leaf is basically like an independently owned Whole Foods with a wide selection of local and nonlocal organically grown produce and healthy and organic products. 

In addition to the groceries and produce, the deli alone is worth a visit. The New Leaf folks make as good a sandwich as anywhere else in Silicon Valley. From the deli case, the “coastal kale salad’ is one of my all-time favorites. I’ve tried to make it at home, but it’s never as good as New Leaf’s.

There are a few touches that separate the store from the corporate crowd. There are pots of live plants growing above the aisles. I think the juice bar blows away anything you’ll find at Jamba Juice. And there are always copies of the beautifully photographed Surfer’s Journal for sale at the checkout line, surfing pornography for wave riders and an ode to the company’s Santa Cruz roots.

The store is holding its grand opening from noon to 4pm on May 19. The parking-lot event will include free food, giveaways and vendor displays.

New Leaf Community Markets
5667 Silver Creek Valley Road, San Jose