It's been a long process to reopen the Safeway store in Bel Air's Brierhill Shopping Center that was forced to close Jan. 23 after the roof collapsed that day under 30-plus inches of snow.
The store is set to open at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 9, and Safeway officials say they are pleased to be able to serve Harford County again. The Brierhill location is the chain's only Harford store.
"It has not been smooth. In the beginning after the collapse, every time we'd take something down, we'd find more structural damage," Safeway construction Manager Shawn Dekker said. "The damage was a lot worse than we anticipated."
Ultimately, the company chose to do an entire store remodel, which cost about $7 million. The finished store includes an updated décor, new signage, expanded departments and new equipment.
"They've turned it into a beautiful new store for the community," Beth Goldberg, senior manager of community and public affairs for Safeway Inc.'s Eastern Division, said.
Sarah Siesing, who has been shopping at Wegmans in Abingdon since the collapse, is looking forward to having a grocery store close to her house again.
"I'm just glad to have one that's five minutes away instead of 15 to 20 minutes," said Siesing, who lives less than a mile from the Bel Air store.
"I like it for when you need something for dinner or you forgot an ingredient, it's right there," Siesing said.
Safeway's forced closing left the core Bel Air grocery-store market with just two supermarkets within a mile of downtown: the Klein's ShopRite on North Main Street and the Weis Market off Route 24 and West MacPhail Road.
Soon the field will get even more crowded. In addition to the remodeled Safeway, discount grocer Aldi is remodeling the former Mars in Bel Air Plaza on Baltimore Pike and planning to open by year's end.
Experts in the supermarket industry said Safeway's closure has not had much of an impact on the grocery store market in Harford County.
"Shop Rite is big in Harford County, the Klein family. You have big box retailers like Walmart, etc.," said Jeremy Diamond, director of Diamond Marketing Group, which consults with retailers and wholesalers in the grocery industry. "I don't think Safeway's closure really affected anything except Safeway. Safeway in itself, they have pretty nice stores, but they don't identify with grocery store shoppers as having a certain niche."
Jeff Metzger, publisher of Food World, an industry trade publication that covers the East Coast, said Harford is an "over-stored market."
"There are a lot of food and drug options," he said. "From a consumer standpoint, having so many shopping options is a great thing. If you're in the industry, it's challenging."
It's difficult to say if customers who have been shopping elsewhere will return, Metzger said.
"As a generality, customer loyalty over the last decade has really receded. There's a lot more cross-shopping that goes on," he said. "Customers are very fickle today. To say if you rebuild it, they'll all come back has less to do with coming back than who's got the best options."
That it has taken Safeway 10 months to re-open tells Diamond two things – that Safeway "doesn't really care, because they're so large and have so many stores" and that they're "possibly having second thoughts about re-opening."
Safeway wants to re-open so the chain can say it has a store in every market in Maryland, "but they don't care. They're so large," Diamond said.
Safeway's Goldberg declined to discuss how the prolonged closing of her company's store might affect business going forward.
"I'm home, so I'm very happy," seafood manager Chris Wood-Fitchwell said as she put prepared frozen fish dinners in a freezer Friday.
She has worked at Safeway since 1999 and said the Bel Air store is "definitely home for a lot of us," she said.
The 50 employees who were relocated after the collapse all opted to come back to the Bel Air store despite being given the opportunity to stay where they were.
Assistant Store Manager Stacy Baier had been relocated to the Perry Hall store for the last 10 months while the Bel Air store was repaired and renovated.
"It really says a lot about the store, there's a lot of camaraderie. It says a lot about the people," Baier said.
Baier was one of the half-dozen or so employees who were in the store when the roof fell in, she said. She had worked the night before and stayed at her sister's house in Abingdon rather than drive home to Bowley's Quarters.
You could see the roof falling in, Baier said. It happened very quickly and it was very loud.
"It sounded like a freight train coming through the store," she said.
Fifteen minutes before the collapse, everyone had come up front for a group photo of the employees who made it into work that day, including a meat clerk who was in the back when the roof fell. Had he not been up front for the picture, he would have been in the area that suffered the most damage.
One customer was in the store, Baier said.
"He was upset that he broke a jar of tomato sauce trying to move away from the produce area," she said.
The employees were sent to the fuel station to stay warm. The store manager stayed overnight, while Baier got a ride from the fire company.
Salvaging, then rebuilding
The first three months were spent cleaning up the store and salvaging whatever could be salvaged, like some of the equipment on the opposite side of the store from where the roof collapsed.
As for the products in the store, a salvage company bought some of it, Dekker said."Safeway itself did not keep any of the product."
Cleanup included removing the product, cleaning out all the water from the damaged pipes, removal of damaged and wet construction materials, and supporting the existing roof structure of the portion of the store that didn't collapse.
Construction started seven months ago three months after the collapse, Dekker said.
The most difficult part of rebuilding was the structural issues they encountered, he said.
Construction managers had prepared a plan to fix the store based on what they saw in terms of damage. When they began to remove the steel, however, they found more damage, which meant they had to go back to the structural engineer for new calculations and drawings.
"It was all built to the structural snow loads, to all the codes, so it was just the amount of snow," he said.
That work included new structural steel, new exterior cement walls, a new ceiling grid and tile, new refrigeration lines and sprinkler lines, new electrical and plumbing systems, new meat freezer and cooler and new interior framing – all in the areas affected by the collapse.
"Once we started construction, it went pretty well after we found all the damage," Dekker said.
The store has been just about gutted, down to the tile floor torn up to expose the concrete, which has been polished.
All of the major departments – produce, deli, bakery, pharmacy, meat and seafood – are in the same place, Dekker, said, though many additions have been made.
As not much was salvageable after the collapse, he said. Virtually all of the equipment is new.
In the deli department, a chef on site will make sushi per the customer's orders, or to grab and go, said Angie Marshall, assistant manager for deli and prepared foods.
There will be more than 350 types of specialty cheeses, a wing bar, preservative-free foods, a new sandwich counter and a huge selection of prepared meals.
"A lot of customers are on the go, they have very limited time and are looking for meal options," Marshall said.
The bakery department has a new photo cake machine, so customers can get their pictures put on a cake. The floral department counter has been pushed into a corner to open the floor for more flowers and arrangements and the produce section has expanded.
After months of planning and work, Marshall is ready to see the store open.
"I'm extremely happy," she said.