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For Giant store manager, it's all about the customers

Hyson gets a big thumbs up as former SuperFresh opens for business

By Larry Perl, lperl@patuxent.com

April 2, 2012

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It's been a hectic few weeks for Nick Hyson, but he's managing. Hyson is manager of the new Giant supermarket that held its grand opening in Hampden on March 29, and former manager of the Rotunda mall Giant that closed the same day.

He's been the man in the middle of recent upheaval in the local grocery industry, helping to close the 41-year-old store in the Rotunda and to open the new one, a converted SuperFresh and Fresh & Green's, in the Green Spring Tower Shopping Center, a quarter mile away.

He's the local face of Giant, recognizable to many customers who mourned the loss of the Rotunda store, and a sign of stability as the new store finds its legs.

As the dust settles and the hoopla dies down after last week's grand opening, Hyson, 42, who is married, is looking forward to a day off, although when, he's not certain.

He has not had a day off in at least two weeks, "by choice," he said March 31, and has been working from about 5:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day.

"I want to be here, just to make sure things are right," the Rosedale resident said .

A trim, energetic 42, wearing black slacks and a purple shirt (Giant's color), Hyson is very much a company man. In fact, Landover-based Giant Food is the only employer he's ever worked for, other than a few part-time jobs in high school. He came to Giant as a teenager, "pushing carts out front," he said.

His brother used to work for Giant Food; his sister still does, as a baker in the bakery division in Severna Park.

Hyson rose through ranks, becoming a seafood and meat specialist for the company and then manager of the Rotunda Giant in 2010.

He might never have left the Rotunda, if corporate had followed through on its original plans to close the undersized store there and build a state-of-the-art Giant in the south parking lot as part of the mall's anticipated redevelopment.

But the economy tanked and redevelopment fizzled until early 2012, when Giant Food purchased the former SuperFresh and Fresh & Green's stores in Hampden and Parkville.

In an agreement inked earlier this year, New Jersey-based Rotunda owner Hekemian & Co, which now plans to redevelop the mall on a smaller scale, agreed to let Giant out of its long-term lease in the Rotunda, so that Giant could relocate to the Green Spring Tower Shopping Center.

In exchange, Giant agreed to let Hekemian replace the Giant store with a smaller "boutique" grocer of no more than 20,000 square feet in the Rotunda, such as a Trader Joe's, so as not to compete with Giant in its new location, said Chris Bell, senior vice president for acquisitions and development at Hekemian.

That agreement paved the way for the relocation of the Rotunda Giant — and Hyson with it.

He has brought 121 employees from the Rotunda Giant with him and added about 100 more, some from the old Fresh & Green's and some newly hired — "from the neighborhood," he said.

And along with Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, he took an active role in resolving the issue of how to get area seniors to the new Giant. They could walk to the Rotunda Giant from surrounding apartments and retirement communities, but would have been hard-pressed to walk down the hill to the new Giant and then back up the hill with their groceries.

"That was one of my main concerns," Hyson said.

Last month, Giant Food agreed to give the Hampden-based nonprofit Action In Maturity a $5,000 grant, so that AIM could shuttle seniors to the Giant and back home. That service started with the grand opening, when the first minibus pulled into the Green Spring Tower parking lot.

Red carpet treatment

Hyson said "long days and hard work" preceded the grand opening. Advance planning by him and Giant paid off with a soft opening that was anything but. So many people were waiting at the store earlier in the day that officials opened at 12:45 p.m, not 5 p.m, as originally planned.

City officials on hand for a ribbon-cutting ceremony included City Council PresidentBernard C. "Jack" Youngand 14th District City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakehad a prior engagement, said Jamie Miller, spokesman for Giant Food.

Some employees wore red jackets, red hats and white gloves as if serving as ushers at a movie premiere. A red carpet was laid down inside the entrance and popcorn was served at the entrance. Shoppers got gold stars that entitled them to a free bag of groceries as they left.

And like a movie premiere, there were reviews for the new store, most of them rave reviews.

"So far, so good. I think I'm going to like this," said Magnolia Morris, 49, of Randallstown, as she shopped at the new Giant location.

Morris, who works at the People's Community Health Center in Charles Village, said the parking at the new location was better than the limited parking at the Rotunda store.

"I love it," said Stephanie Stockton, 34, of Medfield, a meeting planner, as she shopped with her 1-year-old daughter, Charlotte. "It's clean. It's fresh. I wanted a good store in the neighborhood."

Stephen Nichols, 75, of Guilford, had no complaints, even when told that the store's ATM bank machine wasn't up and running yet. He said he won't miss the Rotunda Giant — "not at all."

Ellie Reynolds, 25, of Hampden, a Community College of Baltimore County student, and her husband, Jason, 31, who works for an engineering firm, breezed through the store with one of its many free hand-held scanners. Their only hangup was getting through a self-checkout counter, but employees were quick to help them.

"Oh my gosh, I love it," Ellie Reynolds said.

She said she especially liked the new store's natural and organic food section.

The new store will be open daily from 6 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Saturday, and 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.

The 47,000-square-foot Giant has a full-service deli, bakery, produce section, butcher and seafood departments, a cafe area with self-serve coffee, and separate floral and natural foods sections and a Carvel ice cream case.

There's no pharmacy, but a Rite Aid is next door in the shopping center, which also includes a T-Mobile cell phone store, aDunkin' Donuts, the restaurant Mamma's Cucina and a dry cleaners.

The floor and all shelving in the Giant is new, according to Miller.

The new Giant also has a "cartronics" system to prevent the theft of shopping carts from the store, Miller said.

Hyson was "a little bit sad" to leave the Rotunda, but couldn't hide his excitement at the privilege of running a brand new supermarket.

"It's a good feeling," he said.

Touching customers

On Saturday, two days after the grand opening, the new Giant appeared to be running smoothly, with a little temporary help from Jason Raborg, Giant's regional service manager.

"The customers are loving it," Raborg said.

And Hyson, whose duties range from training new employees to ensuring that shelves are stocked, was also greeting customers and answering questions, wearing his name tag with the Giant logo.

For him, it's all about the customers.

"I just try to touch each and every one of them," he said.

He hugged Joy Swonger, a former employee of the Rite Aid store in the Rotunda, who now works for another Rite Aid.

And he nodded a greeting to a customer he knew, who was passing by as he was talking to a reporter.

The woman gave him a big thumbs up and silently mouthed, "Nice job."