Taking Stock

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Local Notes

The $15 an hour Baltimore City minimum wage bill is dead for now. Mayor Catherine Pugh vetoed the proposed legislation last month after the City Council voted to approve the measure in early March. Pugh, who first expressed support for the bill and then wavered, said she ultimately decided that if the bill became law it would have cost the city $116 million and also significantly impacted businesses which would be affected. Those businesses included food retailers and credit should be given to Benjy Green (B. Green/Food Depot), the Klein family (ShopRite) and several other supermarket retailers who operate stores in Baltimore City for “educating” the legislative and executive branches of city government on what the ramifications of a $15 minimum wage would be…a final few words about Weis’ annual vendor meeting and the great improvement the company has made over the past few years. My key takeaways – execution, fairness and humility. There’s little question that without a very high level of execution by CEO Jonathan Weis, COO Kurt Schertle and their team, the Sunbury, PA regional chain could not have reached the stellar performance levels it has achieved in an extremely competitive environment. Opening 44 stores in 96 days is a microcosm of the company’s flexibility and skill. And when you talk to Weis’ associates and to its vendors, the common theme is “fairness and respect.” That’s how we’d all like to be treated, but Weis is clearly walkin’ that talk. Much easier said than done. And after three consecutive strong years of performance, it would be easy to feel a bit full of yourself. That’s never been the case at Weis where the culture continues to be one of focus, selflessness and remaining humble…kudos to Colleen Wegman, who was recently promoted to chief executive of the family-owned uber chain. Her dad, Danny, who has served as CEO since 2005, will move up to the chairman’s role, and will continue to be active in the company’s activities which include 14 future store openings. “The time has come to create a structure for the future that will allow us to remain strong, vibrant and family-owned. I have no doubt that our company will be in good hands.” The Rochester, NY-based merchant also recently announced grand opening dates for its next two mega-units, all in New Jersey. It will cut the ribbon on July 23 for its Hanover store (113,000 square feet) and on September 24 it will debut its long-awaited store in Montvale (108,000 square feet).  Its Medford, MA unit (Meadow Glen Mall) is also set for a fall 2017 opening, but no specific date has been announced yet…two Giant/Carlisle (Ahold USA) stores in Lancaster County, PA will be closing soon. The company’s 48,800 square foot unit in Fruitville Pike in Manheim Twp. and its 39,500 square foot unit on Reservoir Street in Lancaster will be shutting their doors on May 18. “It’s always difficult to close a store, but this decision was made as a result of an ongoing assessment of our store fleet, and in this instance, the stores being closed are not part of our long-term plans for Lancaster,” Giant president Tom Lenkevich said. And speaking about Ahold (and Delhaize), we should soon know the merchandising realignment org chart. Meetings were held recently in Quincy, MA (Stop & Shop’s headquarters) to determine which executives will be assigned to which divisions as the company essentially blows up its centralized merchandising department in Carlisle and focus on supporting its banners (brands) on a divisional basis…Kroger announced that it will reduce its new store and expansion plans this year by about 35 percent as part of an overall plan to reduce cap-ex by about 13 percent (from $.7 billion to $3.2-$3.5 billion). Approximately 55 new projects are planned for this year – as opposed to 85 in 2016 – but the Cincinnati-based chain said about 175 major remodels will be completed by the end of the year. Kroger is essentially following an industry trend over the past few years where supermarket operators have scaled back on building new stores (because of the cost and scarcity of prime real estate and overstoring from multi-channels) and concentrated on improving its existing physical store base. While we’re on the subject of overstored markets, is there a more competitive market on the East Coast than Richmond (which happened to be one of Kroger’s fastest growing areas – until Wegmans opened two stores last year)? The last three Martin’s stores (Ahold USA) that will be sold to Publix (as part of a 10-store package) will close in July. Publix has already taken possession of the other seven units it acquired as part of the Ahold/Delhaize divestiture effort and is working on remodeling them as I write this. The first Publix store in the Old Dominion’s capital should open later this summer. Publix will also be building two additional “from the ground up” units – a previously reported new store on Nuckols Road in Glen Allen and another supermarket on Brandy Creek Drive and Mechanicsville Turnpike in Hanover County. Martin’s will also close another of its nine remaining stores it did not sell to Publix (Hull Street Road in Chesterfield County) on June 30 due to an expiring lease. Ahold USA officials have not revealed Martin’s long-term exit plan for its Richmond area stores, but it seems like it’s only a matter of time before those store will also be shuttered. Not only will Publix be entering the market shortly, but so will Lidl. Multiple sources have told us that the German discounter has pushed back its U.S. debut to mid-June when as many as 20 stores could open the first week (followed by multiple store openings in subsequent weeks). The first group of openings will take place in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. We hope to publish that opening round of locations in next month’s issue…more good news for the fine folks at Burris Logistics, which recently renewed its contract to supply Acme Markets with frozens at its 178 stores in the Mid-Atlantic. Burris and Acme have been frozen partners for more than 40 years in one of the industry’s strongest business relationships…7-Eleven will build on its national c-store dominance with the acquisition of more than 1,100 convenience stores from Sunoco. The deal is worth $3.3 billion (cash) and will significantly increase 7-Eleven’s store base in 18 states, including in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. When the deal is completed in Q4 of this year, the Dallas, TX-based c-store monolith will control nearly 10,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada…another small-format merchant with a big store count is about to get bigger. Dollar General, the “7-Eleven of the dollar store channel,” which lost out to rival Dollar Tree in its 2015 bid to buy Family Dollar, will gain 323 former Family Dollar units after agreeing to purchase those stores from PE firm Sycamore Partners. Sycamore acquired that batch of “conflict” stores two years ago, which cleared the way for Chesapeake, VA-based Dollar Tree to spend $8.5 billion to buy the remainder of Family Dollar (Dollar General’s higher $9.7 billion offer was rejected because of antitrust concerns). Nearly half of the acquired stores are located in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast…as it continues to struggle to rediscover its merchandising and marketing mojo, Target made a bold move last month in naming Kroger executive Jeff Burt as its new senior VP-grocery, fresh food and beverage (that job was recently held by Anne Dament, a hand-picked successor of CEO Brian Cornell. Dament is now at Supervalu). Burt, who was president of Kroger’s Fred Meyer unit in Portland, OR, will have an exceedingly difficult challenge as Cornell must decide how to escape its dreaded “middle of the road/roadkill” perception as it pertains to Target’s grocery image. …Chuck Barris is dead. The wacky television executive (he created “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game”) and host of “The Gong Show” passed away earlier this month at the age of 87. Barris, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, had a most interesting life, which also included songwriting (“Palisades Park” in 1962, which was a big hit for Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon) and authoring several books, including his autobiography, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” in which he claimed to have been a CIA assassin. That memoir was made into an interesting movie in 2002 which was directed by George Clooney in his first behind the camera effort. As the so-called “king of daytime television,” Barris introduced us to such memorable Gong Show characters as “Gene Gene The Dancing Machine” and “The Unknown Comic.”…we have also lost a true American original: Jimmy Breslin, who pretty much defined the words “passionate local columnist,” passed away at the age of 88. Working for a variety of New York daily newspapers – The Journal American, Daily News, New York Post and Newsday – in a career that spanned more than 60 years, Breslin was poetic and profane, often funny and always controversial. He authored several novels including his initial fiction tome “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” a hilarious satirical look at how the Mafia operated (which unfortunately was made into an awful movie). From surgery for a brain aneurysm in 1994 came his memoir “I Want To Thank My Brain For Remembering Me.” It may have been a different generation, but Jimmy Breslin’s wit and wisdom will surely be missed…from the world of music we regret to report the passing of two talented guitarists. J. Geils, founder of the very popular Boston-based J. Geils Band, died unexpectedly earlier this month at the age of 71. Geils founded the band in 1967 while a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His band mates included Danny Klein “Magic Dick” Salwitz, Stephen Jo Bladd, Seth Justman and the great Peter Wolf (who is still performing and remains a “must see” live act). I have probably seen the J. Geils Band perform more than 30 times in my life and it was almost always a great show. J. Geils was a creative lead player whose style was blues-rock oriented. If you want a taste of the J. Geils Band at its finest, I’d suggest listening to their “Live Full House” album. If there was one man who could arguably claim the kingship of rock and roll, it would be Chuck Berry. The iconic guitarist, songwriter and singer passed away March 18 at his St. Louis area home at the age of 90. While Elvis may have been the shiniest star in the earliest days of rock and roll in the mid to late 50s, Berry was certainly its heart and soul, writing such timeless classics as “Johnny B. Goode,” Roll Over Beethoven,” “Maybellene” (his first hit) and “Promised Land.” Actually, there were about 20 great songs in the Berry catalogue that achieved best-selling status. Chuck Berry was inducted into the inaugural Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class in 1986 and “Johnny B. Goode” will live on extraterrestrially, having been launched into eternity on the Voyager I and II spacecraft in 1977. John Lennon said it perfectly: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.’…two influences from my youth have also moved to new headquarters. Joe Harris, the illustrator of both the Trix Cereal rabbit and superhero Underdog (voiced by Marlon Brando’s best friend Wally Cox), died earlier this month at the age of 89. In addition to creating the floppy eared white cartoon rabbit, Harris also wrote the cereal’s signature line: “Silly rabbit! Trix are for kids.” A few years later, he created Underdog, which debuted in 1964 and became a staple of NBC’s Saturday morning lineup for three years. And, although his career ran much longer than my ill-spent youth, my initial impressions of Don Rickles were formed from his many appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Rickles passed away at the age of 90 on April 6 in Beverly Hills, CA. One of the first of the insult comics, Rickles was actively performing until two years ago. He began his career in the late 1950s as a dramatic actor. An early role as an unscrupulous carnival owner (aren’t they all?) in the classic Roger Corman 1962 horror movie, “The Man With The X-Ray Eyes” remains a favorite. However, Rickles’ best role remains as ultra-nervous casino manager Billy Sherbert in the great Martin Scorsese film “Casino” (1995). But, if you are my age (as a few of you are) you will never forget the many Rickles late night appearances with Carson, where his improvisational “attack dog” schtick was always delivered with lightning speed and cutting impact. How could you not laugh out loud? There may have been better comedians than Rickles, but few had his ad lib talent and amazing timing. May you rest in peace, hockey puck…finally, our condolences are extended to the Redner family on the passing of the company’s founder and patriarch, Earl Redner, who died earlier this month at the age of 91. “The Chief” truly personified his character in how he created and built the company that began with one store in Leesport, PA in 1970 after spending 29 years as an executive for the old Grand Union organization (where he was the youngest GU employee to hold the title of manager, district manager and store superintendent). He was also an innovator, creating an ESOP plan (employee-owned stock ownership) in 1975, the first such company in Pennsylvania to do so. Earl Redner was a tough guy with a heart of gold. His family, associates and community always came first. Having met “The Chief” in 1978 after acquiring Food World, I was not only initially impressed by his humility, but also by his razor sharp knowledge of how to properly operate a grocery store. It’s no wonder that the company remains very successful today with 53 grocery and convenience stores. “My father was a role model for not only myself and our family, but also the food industry. He lived a long, successful life and made a tremendous difference in the community. I’m thankful he was able to see his dream and company become more successful than he ever imagined. His spirit and enthusiasm remained high and he continued to attend board meetings, visit stores and would enjoy speaking with our employee-owners often,” said his son and current Redner CEO Dick Redner. A giant of a man, “The Chief” will be missed.