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Cordish goes to the mat for Amish market in Joppa

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Naomi Stoltzfus, a young Amish woman, pushed a cart full of soda she'd just bought at Redner's Warehouse Market across the parking lot of Joppatowne Plaza to another section of the shopping center, where she planned to resell the beverages at the food stall where she works.

Stoltzfus is employed at Kreative Kitchens, a salad and sandwich shop in the Amish Market, which occupies part of the Joppa Market Place section of the plaza.

"We get a lot of ingredients for the salads from Redner's," Stoltzfus said on a recent Friday.

But the appreciation between the grocer and the Amish merchants appears to go only one way.

Redner's, a Pennsylvania chain with about 40 locations, has sued the plaza's owner, Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., contending that the roughly half-dozen Amish food booths inside the sprawling marketplace are siphoning business away from the grocer and should be evicted.

An accountant hired by Redner's figured the grocery chain had lost about $2.3 million because of the Amish Market, according to court documents.

If Redner's is successful in court, Stoltzfus and the rest of the Amish Market workers could be sent packing.

The Amish stalls include a bake shop, a fudge and candy vendor, a meat merchant, and a seafood and produce stand.

The suit has been dragging on since last year, but a federal judge could decide as early as next month whether the Amish Market's operation violates the terms of Redner's lease, which prohibits competing grocery businesses from opening in the plaza.

The nature of the Amish Market — including whether it qualifies as an "ethnic" or "specialty" food store — was at the center of a seven-day bench trial that ended in mid-August.

The case might seem an unfair fight — a handful of Amish shopkeepers versus a grocery chain — but the Amish have a formidable ally in the Cordish Cos. Cordish argues that the Amish Market falls within a term of the lease that makes exceptions for ethnic markets.

Moreover, Cordish contended in court papers that Redner's has "suffered no economic harm that may be reasonably attributed to the Amish farmers' market."

On a recent Friday, customers crowded the Amish Market, picking up sweets and spare ribs to take home and buying sandwiches to eat in the restaurant booths in the center of the market.

"I really like the Amish," said Dundalk resident Debbie Sachs, who was buying stuffed chicken breasts. "I like what they stand for, and I like their belief in God."

Of the chicken breasts, she said: "They're wonderful."

Kyonna Price, of Edgewood, who was selecting prepared foods from Beiler's Bar-B-Que, another Amish stall, said her husband would be upset if the Amish Market was forced to close. "He likes the baked goods," she said.

Redner's signed a lease in November 2005 with Joppatowne G.P. Limited Partnership, a division of the Cordish Cos., and became an anchor tenant of the shopping center on Joppa Farm Road off Pulaski Highway in Harford County.

The grocery chain agreed to pay Cordish more than $12 million over a 20-year lease, according to court filings. The lease with Cordish prohibited the Baltimore developer from renting to another business that would have more than 6,000 square feet dedicated to groceries unless it was an ethnic or specialty food store.

While Cordish argues that the Amish Market falls within the bounds of this exception, Redner's says there is nothing distinctly Amish about the goods sold in the Amish booths.

The parties also disagree over how much space the Amish vendors occupy in the market.

In late 2009, Cordish leased a nearly 108,000-square-foot building at Joppatowne Plaza to J.T.F. LLC, which opened a flea market in the space. About a year later, J.T.F. sublet about a tenth of the area to the Amish Market.

According to the lease between J.T.F. and the Amish Market — which was submitted to the court — the Amish vendors sublease 11,500 square feet. However, Cordish has contested the size of the Amish Market's sales area, saying it does not exceed the 6,000-square-foot limit stipulated in the Redner's lease agreement.

The trial, heard by U.S. District Judge Benson Everett Legg, has dragged on for nine months. Several settlement conferences were ordered so Redner's and Cordish could resolve the claims before the trial concluded, but none were fruitful.

In fact, the parties' allegations against one another snowballed as the trial progressed.

Information revealed during litigation about the operations of Redner's gas station led Cordish to allege that the grocery chain had violated its lease terms, thereby voiding its claims against Cordish about the Amish Market.

Cordish notified Redner's in February that it was terminating the grocer's lease because of Redner's gas station operation, according to Redner's trial attorney, John J. Miravich. If Cordish pursues the matter, Miravich said, the Joppa store's more than 100 employees could be thrown out of work.

Legg concluded the trial on Aug. 14 but has requested an additional briefing in mid-September. The parties will argue whether all claims related to J.T.F. and the Amish Market should be dismissed, according to an order from Legg.

The judge is not expected to rule until after the September hearing whether the lease's anti-competition provision should be enforced or whether all or some of the Amish Market vendors should be expelled from the plaza.

Representatives for Cordish and Redner's did not return calls seeking comment.

Meanwhile, business continues as usual at Joppatowne Plaza's Redner's and Amish Market.

"It's holding steady," said Steven Stoltzfoos of his operation, an Amish stall called the Dutch Pantry that sells candy and nuts. Stoltzfoos also has a small section of gluten-free products, which he called a "good hit" with patrons.

"We're always looking for more [customers], like any business," said Stoltzfoos, who commutes from Perry County, Pa., about a two-hour drive from the shopping center.

On a recent Friday, many of Stoltzfoos' customers were either coming from or heading to Redner's.

Said Barbara Bell, who called herself a regular at both Redner's and the Amish Market: "I think there's room for both."

steve.kilar@baltsun.com

twitter.com/stevekilar

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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