As years passed, and the Whole Foods building sat vacant in Ellis Preserve town center in Newtown Square, neighborhood Facebook groups were flooded with theories on why the high-end grocery store had yet to move in.
Sinkholes. Unstable flooring. Not enough parking.
All were possibilities discussed and debated on community forums over the course of three years.
"The rumor mill just started going," said Dannon Voight, 32, of Newtown Square. "It was kind of amusing."
Turns out, as is often the case with social-media-borne theories, none of them proved to be true.
Whole Foods, the supermarket chain that was purchased by Amazon last year for $13.7 billion, first signed a lease at Ellis Preserve in 2015, said Steve Spaeder of Equus Capital Partners, which developed the community. But, as the rest of the shops and restaurants in the commercial section of the development opened, the grocery-store building, with its Whole Foods logos plastered on the side, remained empty. After being delayed a year and a half by Amazon's purchase of the company, Spaeder said, the store is finally scheduled to open in January.
Many who live in and around Newtown Square said they excitedly await the opening of Whole Foods, which calls itself "America's Healthiest Grocery Store" and is widely considered the country's largest organic grocer.
"If I had a dollar for every time someone called and asked when it's opening, I'd be a rich guy," Spaeder said with a laugh.
Whole Foods has grown rapidly since its first market opened in 1980. Today, it operates more than 400 stores nationwide. Of 14 stores in Pennsylvania, nine are in Philadelphia and its collar counties. The Newtown Square location will join Main Line counterparts in Devon and Wynnewood, as well as an Exton store that opened in January 2018, also after delay. The company has 19 stores in New Jersey, mostly in the northern part of the state, but two are in South Jersey — in Cherry Hill and Marlton.
Whole Foods did not respond to a request for comment.
Phil Lempert, food industry analyst and editor of Supermarketguru.com, said the grocery giant capitalized on a "foodie" culture. Today, he said, Americans care more about the food they put in their bodies and their environmental footprint than past generations.
Whole Foods attracts a "higher-economic shopper who is invested in food and sustainability," he said. Newtown Township, Delaware County, where the new Whole Foods will be located, has a median household income of nearly $84,000, according to census data.
The high-end grocery store model isn't new, Lempert said, but companies such as Whole Foods have made it mainstream — and brought it to the suburbs. Historically, high-end markets were located mostly in such big cities as New York and Philadelphia, said Lempert, a Drexel University graduate who works in Santa Monica, Calif.
In the 1960s, he said, the now-shuttered supermarket chain Food Fair, later known as Pantry Pride, became one of the first large-scale grocers to turn upscale.
Today, the conventional grocery store, with its seemingly never-ending, linear aisles, is a "dinosaur," he said. At Whole Foods and other high-end stores, customers can choose from a wide array of organic foods, eat at in-store restaurants, enjoy free samples, and order groceries online to be picked up or delivered later.
Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods made many in the supermarket business realize they had to evolve with their customers or fall by the wayside.
"Oh, I think it changed the game for the industry," Lempert said. "It woke up every other retailer in the country. [It made them realize] we've got to embrace technology. We've got to get our act together."
Zia Daniell Wigder, co-founder of Groceryshop, a national grocery-store innovation conference that started this year, said the change may have begun even before the sale of Whole Foods, as more industries — retail, travel, finance — focused on the digital side of their businesses.
"Grocery was the one big sector that hadn't gone through that transition," she said.
Melissa Ford, 66, of Newtown Square, said she usually shops at the Whole Foods in Devon, the route to which can be a congested five-mile drive.
"I'm really looking forward to it coming much closer," she said.
Ford enjoys organic food, she said, as well as freshly prepared meals that she can grab on the way to her evening shifts as a medical technician.Whole Foods offers a large selection of both, she said.
Her excitement is tempered slightly by everyday concerns. She said she shares other residents' worries about parking and congestion.
To her, the store's parking lot appears a bit small, wedged between the grocer and a new Hilton Garden Inn behind a larger lot for the rest of the town center's stores, she said. (Spaeder said residents should not fear: The Whole Foods' lot fits the standard of 5-spots-per-1,000-square-feet of grocery store space.)
Ford said she used to traverse the area around the Route 252-West Chester Pike intersection regularly. But now she takes back roads.
"It's already become really congested," she said. "I think all the townhouses and the condos have more to do with it than what stores go in where."
In conversation, Voight, who has lived his whole life in Newtown Square, instinctively described the town as a small community. Then he stopped himself.
"Well, it was a small community. It's getting bigger by the day," he said. "I don't like how the area is being built up, but there's nothing I can do to stop it."
As for Whole Foods, Voight said convenience matters more to him than selection of natural foods. He said he prefers Wegmans, which is open 24 hours, and Trader Joe's, known for cheaper prices.