Grocery Scene Sees Big Changes

by Mark Friedman  on Monday, Jan. 25, 2010 12:00 am  

The father-and-son team of Steve, left, and Oral Edwards of Edwards Food Giant plan to concentrate on the quality of meats and customer service to earn a niche in the market.

For years, Steve Edwards had been scared to open a grocery store in Little Rock.

The market had been dominated by Kroger, Affiliated Food's Harvest Foods and the leader, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s Supercenters.  

But when Affiliated Foods Southwest Inc. of Little Rock filed for bankruptcy in May, it gave Edwards, the president of Edwards Food Giant of Marianna, the opening he needed.

Since June, Edwards Food Giant has opened three locations in Little Rock, and a fourth is scheduled to open in April.

Meanwhile, since Affiliated's $730 million bankruptcy filing, the competition for shoppers in Little Rock has intensified. Public records show at least $25 million was spent on the purchases and construction of grocery stores in Little Rock in 2009, but no doubt millions more have been spent.

Kroger, of Cincinnati, announced in June that during the next four to five years, it would pump $125 million into Arkansas to renovate stores, including four in Little Rock. In February, Kroger will temporarily close its 614 Beechwood St. store for a massive overhaul that will take about nine months. This summer, Kroger will open its 118,000-SF store at 16105 Chenal Parkway, which will feature a mix of merchandise and groceries, similar to a Wal-Mart Supercenter.  

And Wal-Mart is jockeying for customers, too. In November, the Bentonville retailer spent $9.7 million to buy a nearly 23-acre site for a Supercenter at Shackleford Crossings in west Little Rock. The 203,000-SF center could be open by the end of the year, but a Wal-Mart spokesperson didn't return a call for comment.

Other grocery stores are making changes to lure customers who have altered their eating habits and are forgoing restaurants to eat prepared foods at home. Terry's Finer Foods Inc. in the Heights, for instance, is renovating its store to include a 50-seat restaurant, which is on track to open in March.

Harps Food Stores Inc. of Springdale is in a growth mode and is considering coming to Little Rock. (See sidebar.) It had looked at two Affiliated Foods locations in Little Rock but couldn't iron out the terms of a deal, said Harps Chairman and CEO Roger Collins. Harps more recently considered yet another Little Rock site, but that didn't pan out either, he said.

The employee-owned grocery store chain hasn't ruled out coming to Little Rock, but nothing is on the drawing board currently, Collins said.

Not all grocery stores have benefited from Affiliated's bankruptcy, though. Cranford's Fresh World of White Hall, which had opened two stores in Little Rock at the end of 2008, had closed them by summer 2009. Cranford was in the process of buying the former Harvest Foods stores from Affiliated, but Affiliated's bankruptcy derailed the deal. A spokesman for Cranford's didn't return a call for comment.

An independent grocery store, The Station Grocery at 1001 Kavanaugh Blvd., which opened in February, also closed in December.



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