The new Fresh Market store in the Strawberry Hill development in south Charlotte opened Thursday. It’s a new, larger version that replaces Fresh Market’s original location at Providence and Sardis roads, which opened in 1991 and is located just a few yards away.
The new Fresh Market is also the only store that the Greensboro-based grocer is opening at all in 2018.
That’s because Fresh Market, founded in 1982, decided earlier this year to slow its pace of expansion. Then this summer, in an effort to improve its financial health, the upscale grocer said that it planned to close 15 under-performing stores nationwide, including its north Charlotte store on Prosperity Church Road.
The company realizes it’s in an ultra-competitive grocery environment in Charlotte, as well as in the other 21 states in which it operates its 161 stores. So to stand out against other supermarkets like Whole Foods, Earth Fare and Sprouts, Fresh Market is refocusing on what it considers its biggest strengths, CEO Larry Appel told the Observer Thursday morning.
“What we’re doing in this store, and in all of our stores, is getting back to our roots as a European market and as a specialty market,” Appel said.
“Our store’s not a grocery store; it’s a treasure hunt.”
The Fresh Market that Appel envisions isn’t necessarily a place where customers would go for their everyday grocery staples like toilet paper, white bread and milk (although they could). Rather, the store is meant to be a destination for unique international foods, gourmet charcuterie, freshly prepared meals and a large assortment of produce. (Fresh Market says its new Strawberry Hill store, for instance, has a fruits and vegetables section that’s about three times the size of one at a traditional grocery store.)
Appel acknowledges that in years past, the company may have strayed away from its core competencies. Fresh Market went public in 2010 but later sold itself in March 2016 to Apollo Global Management for $1.36 billion.
A few months later, the company announced some major changes, including lower prices on hundreds of items, and a larger selection of groceries, such as 1,300 “everyday items” like baby, pet and household cleaning products.
Appel, who was hired as CEO in September 2017, recalls a conversation he had with a customer last holiday season. When the man told Appel he used to be a regular, Appel asked why he wasn’t anymore. “He said, ‘When you decided you were going to be an ordinary grocery store, I decided I could shop at an ordinary grocery store.’”
“I try not to judge my predecessors because they all had good reasons for doing what they were doing,” Appel said of the changes in years past at Fresh Market. “But I do think that we may have confused our guests a little bit.”
In 2016, Fresh Market exited the Texas market and closed other stores in Kansas, Iowa and Missouri. This year, Fresh Market closed stores in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana. In an August research note, analysts with DBRS noted that Fresh Market’s remaining stores are in its “traditional based” in the Southeast.
“Retreating to markets where it has enjoyed success in the past may help the chain consolidate its strength in those areas,” the report read.
Grocers all over the country are working to differentiate themselves amid intensifying competition. Amazon started lowering prices at Whole Foods after buying the Austin-based grocer last summer, for instance. Harris Teeter has been building larger supermarkets with fancy in-store features like wine bars. Aldi plans to spend $1.6 billion to remodel 1,300 stores nationwide by 2020.
“We had given (customers) a generation of thinking of us as a specialty retailer where you could find unique products. We tried to have the best of both worlds. And I think where the value proposition is in getting back to our roots,” Appel said.
The roughly 21,000 square-foot store in the Strawberry Hill development replaces the older one that closed temporarily as part of a major overhaul of the shopping center. The new store is closer and more visible to Providence Road and has about 5,000 additional square feet of store space.
The store has a new “meals-made-easy” section that includes an array of meals and sides ready to cook or heat up at home. The section caters to busy shoppers who still want to eat well: A meal of grilled chicken with polenta and green beans amandine, for instance, for two people costs $24.99.
Unlike the original store nearby, the new Strawberry Hill store has an outdoor patio with several tables. The new store has an expanded bulk foods section filled with nuts, chocolates and gourmet snacks. The international foods section includes a number of items you’d normally only find at an Asian supermarket, like fresh kimchi and ramen broth. The cheese section boasts gourmet cheese curated from around the world.
“Our mission is to inspire our guests to make everyday eating extraordinary. Another way to say that, I think, is to make ‘foodie’ food accessible to everybody,” Appel said.