Livin' La Vida Low-Carb 

Atkins-based specialty stores are sprouting like dandelions around the East Bay -- but will they last?

"How can you stand there eating a burger -- on a bun?" the manager of Lo Carb Locale finally said to the guy helping set up the store's computer system. "It's not fair for all of us who are working so hard to follow our low-carb diets!" Her voice rose as she broadcast her rebuke toward the customers staring out from between the shelves.

"I'm only here for a couple of days," he said drily.

Fortified by a slice of pizza, I stopped in Berkeley's new low-carbohydrate grocery, which opened on the corner of Solano and Peralta avenues three weeks ago. You won't find prime rib, Gorgonzola, or broccoli at Lo Carb Locale. The 1,500 products on the shelves of the small market are mostly of the processed and prepackaged variety such as cake mixes, pastas (made with wheat gluten, rice flour, and soy flour), energy bars, and drinks. A refrigerated case is stuffed with whole-wheat-looking, reduced-carb bagels and breads, and next to the register you can browse through a shelf full of diet and nutrition books.

Craig Fairbanks, who runs the Copy Central chain, began planning the store with co-owners Mary Tinney and Donna Alderman many months ago. Fairbanks went on the Atkins diet for the first time in 1978, but says the lack of variety in the foods he could eat kept him from sticking to it. Thus the trio opened its market, the health-food store of the new millennium, to stock low-carb products that mimic the kinds of foods that these dieters miss most. They eventually hope to expand into a small chain. Fairbanks says the store's emerging client base seems to be split into three segments: people who are curious about the diet and want to know more; those who have been on Atkins or South Beach for some time; and diabetics, the original low-carbers.

Though food writers, bakers, and even some nutritionists are placing bets on how long the low-carb craze will actually last, the rest of America doesn't seem to be so cynical. A July 21 Gallup poll reported that 27 percent of Americans now actively avoid carbohydrates. A seemingly threatened Weight Watchers just introduced a new alternative plan in which dieters don't have to count points but instead avoid "empty calories" -- i.e., carbs. In August, Information Resources Inc. estimated that revenues from carb-branded business activities were $1.1 billion for the year ending June 15, 2004 -- up $815 million from the year before. Most of that growth came in the form of beverages, snacks, and sweetened foods. Michelob Ultra beer, for example, is selling like chewing gum at a circuit party.

Lo Carb Locale isn't the first specialty store of its kind in the East Bay. Rick Schott, who claims to have lost one hundred pounds on the diet -- "I live the low-carb lifestyle," he says -- opened his first Castus Low Carb Superstore in San Ramon in 1999. Three years later, he started selling franchises. Now there are stores in San Ramon, Concord, Fremont, Pittsburg, and 21 other locations in nine states, with another 25 licenses sold.

Yet recently, according to Schott, sales in his stores have been depressed. "I know why," he says. "Because America can now shop in Safeway for low-carb products." It's true: On a recent spin through Safeway I spotted the C-word on everything from cookies to ice cream.

Schott and Fairchild claim that the limited number of low-carb products at mainstream grocery stores actually makes it harder for people to stick to their diets than when they have access to the thousands of products in their markets, as well as fellow shoppers who are livin' la vida low-carb. The franchise is responding to the drop in revenues by offering more how-to workshops on diet and exercise. At Lo Carb Locale, Alderman, a doctor of osteopathic medicine with additional expertise in nutrition, will do the same.

The drop Castus is seeing, however, is echoing throughout the retail food world. Market analyst AC Nielsen recently reported that the expansion of the "carb-conscious" industry may be at its peak -- second-quarter sales of low-carb products grew 42 percent from the previous quarter, as compared to a first-quarter growth rate of 95 percent. And in IRI's August 2004 newsletter, devoted to low-carb trends, the company offered a warning by example: "The growth of reduced-fat branded products -- launched in the early '90s -- fizzled in five years, and has declined ever since."

"Are you worried low-carb will go the way of low-fat?" I asked Fairchild, who doesn't believe Atkins et al. is a fad. He just laughed. "Low-fat lasted twenty years," he said. "If this is popular for another twenty years, I'll be happy."

And perhaps rich, though hopefully not fat.

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