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Superfresh closings could spell up to 1,500 layoffs

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Nearly 1,500 workers are in danger of losing their jobs under a reorganization plan by the Superfresh supermarket chain that would sell almost all its stores in Maryland, most of which are in the Baltimore area.

The workers will lose their jobs unless other supermarket chains buy the Superfresh locations and retain their employees.

State regulators said Monday that the company filed notice about the layoffs and said that store closings could begin as soon as July 6.

Superfresh has 24 stores in the state, and all but two locations — both in Ocean City — are for sale. The bulk of the workforce is in the Baltimore area, where 1,100 people at 16 stores face pink slips as part of the grocer's plan to emerge from bankruptcy protection.

A spokesman for the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. of Montvale, N.J., which owns Superfresh, said the company would close any stores that are not sold, ending the chain's existence in the Baltimore area.

"These [layoff] notices are being distributed at this time because A&P intends to cease doing business at these locations at the conclusion of the sales process," the spokesman, Eric Andrus, said in a statement Monday. "At that point, any employment decisions concerning these store locations would be made by their new owners."

A&P announced plans to significantly shrink its Superfresh brand in April as it tries to reduce $3.2 billion in liabilities. It is also closing or selling dozens of stores in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. The company, which was founded in 1859 in New York, now operates 395 stores and employs more than 40,000 people in eight states.

In Maryland, the supermarket chain has struggled with intense competition as new players such as Wegmans have entered the market and stalwarts such as Giant Food have upgraded their stores and lowered prices.

Brokers and grocery analysts said that many of the Superfresh spaces are located in prime anchor positions and that many grocers and other retail outlets are interested in the properties.

"I think there are a number of attractive locations, and they may or may not be grocery operators who take them," said Geoffrey Mackler, a principal at real estate brokerage H&R Retail. "Especially in the better markets, there is a shortage of anchor space."

Jeremy Diamond, a consultant and developer with the Diamond Group, said that the Superfresh spaces provide an opportunity for new players to enter the market.

"I see it either as a smart chain that already exists in the market trying to expand or somebody from out of state trying to break into the market," he said. "It's a good opportunity for either scenario."

Giant, the region's largest grocer, is one of the companies that industry observers have said is looking at some of the Superfresh properties. Mars Super Market also has been named as an interested party.

Giant spokesman Jamie Miller would not confirm that the grocery chain was interested in buying the Superfresh properties.

He said in a statement that Giant was aware that Superfresh planned to sell several stores operating in its market. "We are always looking for opportunities to enhance our customer offering, whether by enhancing our existing store network or adding to that network," he said, declining to say specifically whether Giant intended to buy any of the Superfresh outlets.

Santina Stankevich, a spokesman for Wakefern Food Corp., which owns local grocers ShopRite and PriceRite, said that the company "didn't have any announcements to make" but that it continued to look at the Baltimore market "for opportunities."

A representative for Mars could not be reached for comment Monday evening.

Superfresh said it hopes to complete the sale of its properties by mid-June.

Various scenarios could happen at auction. Several owners could buy the stores, or one owner could buy all the stores and sell them separately once the A&P bankruptcy proceedings are completed.

Thomas Maddux, a principal with brokerage firm KLNB Retail, said that companies are interested in the properties, but that the bankruptcy proceeding may present some hurdles. Whoever buys the properties would have to take the leases as is and would not be able to negotiate with landlords.

"The real estate is great, but the process may be cumbersome," Maddux said.

Meanwhile, Superfresh workers are holding out hope that buyers will come in and allow them to keep their jobs.

Several workers at the Superfresh in Hampden, all of whom declined to give their names, said they had been given no information about the fate of the store, which employs about 110 people, many of them neighborhood residents who walk to work.

One employee, who said he had been at the store for a year and a half, said he knew some of his co-workers had begun looking for other jobs, while others continued to hope that a new owner would retain the staff.

Shoppers in Hampden on Monday said they hoped the supermarket would remain open.

Nancy Jenkins said she and her husband walk from their nearby home to shop two to three times a week.

"It's convenient," Jenkins said.

Neighborhood resident Patricia Cox was surprised to hear the Hampden Superfresh would either close or be sold, saying the store is always busy when she does her shopping, usually on Saturday mornings. Even though she has found lower prices elsewhere, she said she prefers to save money on gas by shopping close to home.

"It is sad," said Cox, an employee at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center & Hospital who lives a couple of blocks away from the supermarket and has been shopping there for about a decade. "I know most of the people who work here. It's upsetting to see friends lose their jobs."

Susan Goodlaxson, who was shopping at the Towson Superfresh on Monday, said she was sad about the store's incipient closure. She started shopping at that Superfresh after the one near Towson Town Center closed last year.

She said she likes Superfresh's prices and interacting with the staff. "The staff is really friendly and I think it works best with my budget," she said.

Goodlaxson doesn't know where she'll shop now. "I'm at a loss and trying to work it out," she said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Jamie Smith Hopkins and Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this article.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

Twitter.com: ankwalker

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