Monday, November 21, 2011

One-Year On: Bristol Farms Adds 4,500 New Natural, Organic, Local and Gluten-Free Items to its Stores

Click on the letter above from CEO Kevin Davis to enlarge it.

Southern California Market Region

It's been about one year since Bristol Farms' senior management team and the private equity firm Endeavour Capital acquired the Southern California-based specialty grocery chain from Supervalu, Inc., which obtained the trend-setting upscale chain some years' earlier as part of its buyout, in partnership with the Cerberus private equity firm, CVS Pharmacy and a couple other players, of Boise, Idaho-based Albertson's Inc.

As we wrote about in detail in this story last year - October 29, 2010: CEO Kevin Davis, Execs and Investment Firm Buy Upscale Southern California Bristol Farms Chain From Supervalu, Inc. - the deal to buy Bristol Farms from parent Supervalu was quarter-backed by CEO and President Kevin Davis, who spent many years at the specialty grocery chain while it went through numerous ownership changes.

Davis has an extensive background in the food-grocery retailing business in Southern California, including working as a store manager, district manager, corporate vice president of sales/advertising and senior vice president of marketing at Ralphs, which is the largest grocery chain in the region.

Kevin Davis joined Bristol Farms after leaving Ralphs, which he first joined in 1974 as a retail grocery clerk. Kroger Co. bought the Ralphs and the Food 4 Less chains in Southern California from billionaire supermarket industry investment guru Ron Burkle in the 1980's.

This month, a year after he, his management team and the investment firm took over ownership of Bristol Farms, Davis is announcing what he says is the launching of the specialty grocery chain's "most important change to our merchandising plan in our 28 year history."

That change, Davis says in a letter to customers and potential customers featured at the top of this week's Bristol Farms' advertising circular (see at top), is the "adding of over 4,500 new organic, natural, local and gluten-free products, combined with more specials and more everyday values on key brands throughout the store."

"We’ve added more shelves, more items, more variety, and more value to the extraordinary products and unique Bristol style customer service our shoppers expect and deserve," Davis writes in the letter addressed to shoppers included in this week's (November 16-29) advertising circular, and posted at the top of this story.

The addition of the 4,500 new organic, natural, local and gluten-free SKUs into the 13 Bristol Farms stores (12 in Southern California and one in San Francisco) looks to be completed, based on visits we've made to three stores over the last couple weeks, and conversations with workers in those stores. Bristol Farms also operates a natural foods store in Santa Barbara under the Lazy Acres name.

Davis also wrote a brief post on the Bristol Farms company blog on November 8 announcing the merchandising initiative. The content of the advertising message to customers in this week's ad circular is taken from that post.

Bristol Farms has also unveiled the special logo - "Great Taste Just Got Better: More Organics, More Natural, More Local and More Value! - (pictured at top) as a way to tout and promote the addition of the 4,500 new SKUs in the respective product categories noted above.

The logo is being used throughout the grocer's stores, as well as on its website and in printed media materials.

The addition of the 4,500 new natural, organic, locally-produced and gluten-free products is a natural for Bristol Farms because the small chain's focus since the first store was opened in 1982 in Rolling Hills, California, has been on the specialty-natural-organic-fresh foods niches.

In its early days Bristol Farms became best-known for the numerous specialty and gourmet groceries it stocked in the stores, along with its extensive and high-quality fresh-prepared foods offering. Scouting and introducing unique specialty and gourmet food products remains something Bristol farms prides itself on doing.

The grocer built on this positioning and added more and more natural and organic products into the 1990's.

The 1990's, however, brought major new store growth to Southern California from natural-organic grocery chains like Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats Markets (now part of Whole Foods) and its Henry's Farmers Market chain (now part of Sprouts Farmers Market), along with others, therefore making Bristol Farms' specialty grocer niche one that's today occupied by a lot of competitors, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Gelsons, Sprouts and others, such as Tesco's Fresh & Easy, which has opened 105 stores in Southern California since November 2007, and is increasingly being positioned by Tesco as a specialty grocery chain.

A focus on "local" in general, not just offering locally-produced products, has also been a hallmark of Bristol Farms popularity in Southern California.

For example, in 2000 when Bristol Farms' acquired the old Chasen's restaurant building in Beverly Hills/West Los Angeles, which was known as the gathering place for Hollywood's biggest stars, it incorporated many of the  famed eating and watering hole's existing design elements into the store it constructed , and that still stands at the location, including keeping the high-backed leather booths Chasen's was famous for, and re-using them in the store's restaurant-dining area. About a half-century ago then actor and future President Ronald Reagan proposed to his second wife, actress Nancy Davis (no relation to Kevin we're told), who became First Lady, while sitting in one of those booths during dinner at Chasen's.

A year earlier, in 1999 Bristol Farms acquired another landmark business, this one in Hollywood. The grocer retained many local elements of that landmark business, the former Chalet Gourmet, in the design of its grocery store at the location in Hollywood.

Earlier this year Kevin Davis said, in relation to the acquisition of Bristol Farms from Supervalu

He also said at the time the now "locally-owned" grocer was interested in opening additional locations in Northern California, where there's just one store in San Francisco, if the right location were to come along.

Our 'The Insider' columnist offered one suggestion for Bristol Farms' in Northern California in his May 30, 2011 column here. Andronico's new owners, Renovco Capital, which finalized its acquisition of the grocer at the end of October and is working fast and hard to turn the six-store San Francico Bay Area operation around, might be interested in talking turkey down the road.

The San Francisco Bristol Farms store is inside the big, vertical San Francisco Centre shopping mall on Market Street downtown. The store's focus in more on ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat fresh-prepared foods than it is on groceries, although it includes a small assortment of groceries, fresh foods and perishables. There's also seating inside the store, where breakfast, lunch and dinner is offered to eating-in as well as for take-out.

Since the October 2010 buyout, Bristol Farms has also been improving and beefing-up its in-store deli/fresh-prepared foods offering, which was already extensive. For example, the grocer recently introduced a new line of high protein and fiber-packed ready-to-eat "energy salads," featuring varieties like Italian Salad with Middle Eastern Couscous, Wheatberry Salad, Quinoa Salad and Edamame Tofu Salad.

Fresh bakery is another department where Bristol Farms has over the decades created a signature image. It was one of the first grocers in Southern California, for example, to introduce a full line of in-store baked fresh artisan breads, doing so in the 1980's.

Another in-store bakery feature Bristol Farms started many years ago - and it should use it more aggressively in its current marketing and merchandising efforts, in our analysis - is its "One of A Kind" baked goods program, in which it creates and offers a unique item that's generally not available at any of its competitors. A few of its "One of A Kind' baked goods items have included: Texas Chocolate Cake, Carrot and Pumpkin Cake, Bristol Farms' Gourmet Brownies and various unique varieties of fresh-baked scones.

Bristol Farms is also expanding its private brand program, developing and introducing more products under its "Bristol Farms" brand, such as a line of cookies it debuted this summer, which feature conventional varieties like chocolate chip, ginger, snickerdoodle and iced oatmeal, along with two certified organic vanilla and lemon wafers.

The specialty grocery chain also recently introduced a new line or organic fruit preserves under its "Bristol Farms" brand, and has expanded its own-brand line of organic herbs and spices as well.

The grocer is also branding many fresh meat, pork and poultry items under the "Bristol's Own" private brand, which is a new and more aggressive branding effort than its made with the categories in the past.

Bristol Farms finds itself independent and in a very competitive niche in Southern California.

Not only are there numerous grocers like Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Tesco's Fresh & Easy, Gelsons and Sprouts focusing today on the specialty, natural, organic, fresh food and gluten-free categories - and have their own brands of products in the respective categories along with selling manufacturers' brands - the once very niche categories have become much more mainstream, which is why Safeway Stores, Inc., for example, features an extensive selection of specialty, natural and organic foods in its Lifestyle format Vons stores and more-upscale Vons Pavilions markets in Southern California, as does Kroger-owned Ralphs in its same-banner stores, as well as in its more-upscale Ralphs Fresh Fare units.

Both the Safeway and Kroger-owned chains (Vons and Ralphs, which are the top two grocers in the region) feature their own brands of organic, natural and premium food and grocery products as well. Supervalu-owned Albertsons, the third-largest grocery chain in Southern California by market share, also offers its own brand, Wild Harvest, of natural and organic food and grocery products.

Bristol Farms, now celebrating its first year of independence from Supervalu, Inc., has to carve out its own niche in competitive Southern California, having on one side the giants - Safeway (Vons), Kroger (Ralphs), Supervalu (Albertsons) - each offering a strong assortment of private-brand and manufacturer-branded specialty and organic foods in each of their respective chains - while the numerous specialty grocers in the market region - Whole Foods, Sprouts, Trader Joe's, Gelsons, Fresh & Easy and others - push at it with similar positioning and product offerings from the other end.

As a result, it's worth watching what Bristol Farms' management team, 17 members of which are now owners as well as employees, does in the coming year or two to attempt to differentiate the grocer from the specialty format-focused competitors noted above and others, while at the same time offering consumers a reason to shop at its stores, even though increasingly many of the same products it offers are available at the thousands of mainstream supermarkets and other format food and grocery stores in the region.

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