Towson resident Denise Clark recently had a crash course in how to close one 32,000-square-foot supermarket, then open another.
Clark, former manager of the Superfresh supermarket in the Parkville Shopping Center, at Harford Road and Taylor Avenue, now manages the Fresh & Green's supermarket that opened at the same location, in the same building, on July 3.
Shoppers at the new Parkville Fresh & Green's, at least for the time being, won't see much that is different. As of July 11, the new Fresh & Green's signage had not yet arrived and the faint imprint of the Superfresh logo was visible on the storefront.
Inside, all the products were stocked more or less in the same configuration as they were when the store was Superfresh. Clark said the interior of the store will undergo an extensive renovation in the coming months (and "without any store closures").
But for now, it's all about keeping things familiar in order to ensure a smooth transition for former Parkville Superfresh shoppers, among others.
Many of the faces of the store's 80 employees are the same, according to Clark. She said all former Parkville Superfresh employees were offered positions and many did, in fact, sign on with Fresh & Green's.
"We wanted a quick transition with minimal break in service in order to keep the customer base," said Clark, who grew up just up the road in Golden Ring and worked for Superfresh for 33 years before officially becoming a Fresh & Green's employee at 12:01 a.m. on July 3. "If you walk through the store, it looks the same as before."
"For now, my goal is to get the word out that we are open," added Clark, who will begin mass mailing advertising and promotional brochures to Parkville residents in the next couple of weeks.
On a recent Monday morning, only a handful of shoppers were in the market.
As seamless as the transition between old and new management apparently was, Clark said that for her and her staff – mostly all former Superfresh employees who have been rehired by Fresh & Green's – it took a marathon of activity from the evening of June 30 when the old store closed and the afternoon of July 3 when the new one opened.
"All my associates came to work that (opening) day and did an excellent job of organizing the store and reopening it," Clark said.
At the corporate level, the change in ownership took a little longer.
It began in December, when the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. Inc., also known as A&P, the parent company of Superfresh, was granted a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization by the courts after citing $3.2 billion in liabilities. Part of A&P's downsizing strategy was to divest itself of 57 of its 393 stores in North America.
A&P's stores in Delaware and Maryland alone were sold for $40 million, according to reports in The Washington Post, Bloomberg Business Week and Supermarket News, an industry publication.
Seven of these stores — one in Washington and six in Maryland, including the Parkville supermarket and the former Superfresh in Charles Plaza, at 41st and Charles streets, in Baltimore — were bought by Mrs. Green's Natural Market, a subsidiary of Toronto-based Natural Market Restaurants Corp., which owns and manages stores and restaurants under various names in Canada and the United States. Clark said the acquisitions were completed in May.
Natural Market Restaurants Corp.'s Toronto headquarters could not be reached for comment. But in a brief interview with the Washington Business Journal in June, Matt Williams, CEO of the corporation, said the acquisition was "part of our strategy to grow our concept in under-served regions."
Williams added that while the stores will continue to stock all the conventional food products shoppers were accustomed to buying at Superfresh, the selection of prepared foods, as well as natural, local and organic foods would be expanded.
"We believe the American consumer wants greater access to natural and fresh, healthy foods in their everyday grocery store, and we continue to explore further investment opportunities to meet this demand," Williams said in a separate interview last month with the grocery industry publication, Progressive Grocer.
In a July 18, corporate press release Williams expanded on the concept behind the newly opened Fresh & Green's supermarkets in Maryland.
"Our number one priority has been to prepare staff and ramp up the product supply," he said. "We will continue to expand our inventories so our customers can expect to enjoy an even greater selection of their favorite foods, along with new and healthier options, including nutritious prepared meals, natural local and organic foods."
Denise Clark is quick to point out that the new Parkville Fresh & Green's is not going to be a natural food or organic food store, even though it will expand its natural and organic product line to some extent.
"We will be expanding our line of prepared foods and … our line of organics in several areas of the store, Clark said. "But we are not an all-organic store. Conventional products are what we will mostly stock."
Shaun Johnson, an assistant professor in the College of Education at Towson University, who was instrumental in creating TU's first community garden last year, says retail grocers' increased emphasis on offering fresh, natural, organic and locally grown food is a response to rising public awareness of issues of food safety, purity and nutrition.
"I think a lot of the major (retail grocery) players have seen the writing on the wall," said Johnson, a vegan who has been involved in initiatives to improve public school menus.
"They realize that consumers are becoming much more conscious of the ingredients in their food and where it comes from. People are more aware not just of the nutritional content, but also the 'sustainability' of it. That's the new buzz word," Johnson said.
He attributes this rise in public awareness to recent high-profile outbreaks of e-coli caused by lettuce tainted by run-off from massive hog farms and similar cases of contamination in the mass-produced, and fast foods supply chain.
"I think people are also sick of mass consolidation of the large food corporations, where you have just two or three companies like Monsanto that own the mass majority of where our food comes from." he added.
As for Clark, her mission is locally focused.
"We want to continue to serve our old Superfresh Customers at Fresh & Green's, and we want to become a part of the local community," Clark said.