Foot dependent: Why the future of walkability is Plaid Pantry, and vice versa

Second in a series by Michael Andersen, editor of Portland Afoot, PDX's 10-minute newsmagazine about buses, bikes & low-car life.

If Portland's transportation bosses know what they're doing, Plaid Pantry should be jumping for joy.

If there's a single retail company that might benefit most from the City of Portland's big plan to bejewel itself with 20-minute neighborhoods and engineer a dramatic shift in the way Portlanders get around, it's the Beaverton-based chain of mini-marts.

With just under 100 Portland-area locations, Plaid Pantry is PDX's king of small grocery retail. Unlike Fred Meyer or Safeway, the grocery giants whose low-margin business models depend on huge volume, cheap freight and a vast rideshed of customers willing to drive a mile or three for groceries, Plaid Pantry trades higher prices and narrower selection for greater convenience.

According to Portland's planners, Plaid Pantry is already operating under the formula of the future. So why is its CEO so skeptical?

It's not because the CEO, Chris Girard, has a problem with walking – just the opposite. As someone who enjoys getting around on foot when he visits a pedestrian-driven city like New York, Girard knows what a neighborhood needs to look like before its retailers can stop relying on auto traffic. And he knows how few of Portland's neighborhoods look anything like that.

"It's probably a good goal, an achievable goal," the company's CEO, Chris Girard, told me in a 2010 interview. "It's just not going to happen in our lifetimes."

Once you've got the details worked out, Girard said, running a mini-mart comes down to cold math. Each Plaid Pantry gets about 650 customers per day, most of them in a 1.5 to 2-hour period during the morning and evening commutes.

"The rest of the time you could just close the door," Girard joked.

As the city's transportation bureau shifts its spending to focus on multi-modal streets, will Girard's game change? Maybe. As it becomes more obnoxious to drive a car – and that's exactly what happens when any city grows – ridesheds become smaller. Customers buy fewer things in big boxes and more in smaller, specialized shops. Because fewer commutes involve driving, scoring all those profitable rush-hour purchases starts to depend on having locations along walkable or bikeable streets. Customers coming in on foot, meanwhile, become richer, so the food they're interested in buying changes.

Girard was first to admit he may be proven wrong. Ten years ago, he said, he was sure the Pearl District would "never happen." But his skepticism is an important bit of caution to people who care about walkability. Though policy wonks rarely mention it, a sidewalk's not much use if it doesn't take you somewhere you can buy things.

For Portland's planners, building 20-minute neighborhoods will require making sure businesses can profitably operate within the city's new circulatory system. And for Portland's retail businesses, staying profitable will continue to require thinking on your feet.

Portland Afoot's February issue is about crazily creative ideas for improving public transit in Portland. WPC fans can subscribe (or renew) for $10 a year with coupon code WPCWALKS. Plaid Pantry photo by Matthew Rutledge, published under a Creative Commons license.