(Oct. 20) Fresh food, it appears, is coming home. Or close to home.

Actually, the concept of the corner grocery store has always been around. Indeed, it’s difficult to pass through a neighborhood in New York and not find one.

It’s just that, with the emergence of megastores and malls, the concept has been somewhat overwhelmed.

It seemed an automobile had to be the first item on a shopping list before one could actually go shopping.

But the corner market concept appears to be re-emerging, if not in a big way, then in a noticeable one.

Big companies, including the biggest, Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are bringing back the corner store concept or others that have their own twists.

A common denominator of the new offshoot stores is that they all not only carry fresh produce, they are placing an emphasis on it.

You can’t overemphasize the importance of a produce department in this equation.

Corner stores have been around forever. When I was growing up in St. Louis, there was one up the street from my house, in the middle of a crowded neighborhood on the city’s West End.

The store was great for quick pickups of anything from green beans and corn to cereal.

The problem was it had to come in a can. The old market, like so many corner stores, was a cramped shop with narrow aisles, refrigeration ample enough only for half-gallons of milk and butter, and nothing fresh.

You want fresh? Go to the A&P 10 blocks away or, worse, the Kroger, about 4 miles distant.

In the suburbs, it was even worse. There were no corner stores, and the closest grocery store of any stripe could be a 15 minute drive away.

And, as consumers fled the cities for the suburbs between 1960 and 1980, neighborhood stores closed down. In St. Louis, William A. Straub Inc. was perhaps the strongest player in the neighborhood store concept, with a full-line of fresh produce.

Today, as yesterday, Straub operates its four stores in upscale neighborhoods, even though the chain has developed a loyal following outside its local areas.

Now, city living is making a comeback. With it, the appearance of Neighborhood Markets, Wal-Mart’s version of the corner store.

In keeping with the increasingly nutrition-minded consumer, the stores feature meat and produce departments.

Launched in 1998, the format now has more than 70 stores, which range from 42,000 to 55,000 square feet, with a typical inventory of about 28,000 items.

Wal-Mart has opened about 30 of the units in the past year and plans to open about that many more in 2005.

There are others, trying out their own new formats. Albertson’s Inc., the Boise, Idaho-based grocery retail chain, is launching its own arm of so-called price-impact grocery stores, to compete with established names like Aldi Inc. and Save-A-Lot.

Albertson’s even went so far as to launch a separate subsidiary, Extreme Inc., in January to oversee rollout and management of the new chain.

The first seven stores in the concept are opening in Baton Rouge, La., and Dallas. More are on the way, the company says, although it won’t say how many or when they will open.

Indianapolis-based Marsh Supermarkets LLC is trying its hand at the neighborhood store concept with its Arthur’s Fresh Markets.

Marsh recently announced it was opening its second Arthur’s in an upper-income residential area in Indianapolis. Marsh says the stores are designed to keep a neighborhood feel while offering its customers fresh products, including fruits and vegetables.

The first Arthur’s — a 21,000-square-foot venue emphasizing perishables and prepared foods — opened in July in Syracuse, Ind. Another is set to begin construction soon in New Palestine, Ind., the company said.

Then, of course, there are convenience stores that are now offering fresh produce, including ready-to-go salads and fruit items. Pennsylvania-based Wawa Food Markets Inc. has made a splash in the Philadelphia area, for example, offering fresh apples, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, citrus, peaches, plums and nectarines, as well as produce-laden snack packs. Almost in spite of its name, Wawa has become a force to be taken seriously in the Philadelphia area. It’s now the third-largest grocery store chain in that market.

The concept of bringing fresh food to consumers with a price break is novel. Convenience often has required a sacrifice in price. That doesn’t seem to be the case with these new formats.

An advantage is that these new stores can tap into complex supply chains of their more established parent companies. They also can bring locally grown produce to shoppers, which also is something new and potentially profitable.

Marsh is especially vocal about its support of local growers, advertising in-season items like tomatoes, cantaloupes and corn.

There is plenty of room for growth in these alternative formats. The so-called club stores turned into bountiful markets.

Superstores filled a valuable niche with the one-stop-shop crowd. Even Peapod Inc. found a way to make online grocery shopping pay.

Now, with these new formats, it’s a chance for major retailers to enhance their profits while bringing quality and price advantages to the consumer.