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How These Top Regionals Learned to Thrive in Any Competitive Landscape

10 smaller grocers are leveraging agility, innovation and loyalty to succeed

This year’s class of Progressive Grocer Top Regionals is especially notable amid a major acquisition poised to shake the grocery landscape to its core. 

The Kroger Co.’s proposed merger with Albertsons Cos. would create the largest grocery company in the United States by footprint and revenue, a frightening scenario for many regional players.

But this year’s 10 Top Regionals are staying ahead of the impacts of any grocery mega-merger by leveraging a variety of advantages, including inventive pricing and promotions, family or employee ownership, cult-like shopper devotion, digital reinvention, hyper-local assortments, outstanding customer experience, and, yes, a chicken dance. 

We think these Top Regional power players have what it takes to keep thriving, no matter what crisis or challenge emerges in 2023.

The companies we’ve singled out as Top Regionals are as follows:

Bristol Farms has displayed a willingness to experiment while sticking to the tried and true.

Bristol Farms

Headquarters: Carson, Calif.
Store Count: 14
CEO: Adam Caldecott
Operating Area: Southern California

Operating 14 stores across Southern California, Bristol Farms attracts and holds a loyal fan base through its unwavering dedication to superior food offerings. “Our passion is to bring you the best ingredients — from around the corner and around the world,” the grocer notes on its website. “We delight in discovering new, innovative products and sharing the nostalgia of items we all grew up with.”

On the nostalgia side, the Carson, Calif.-based retailer joined forces with Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen to provide catered Hanukkah meal offerings in 2022, delighting customers with such beloved fare as bagels, challah, smoked salmon, chocolate babka and rugelach.

On the new side, this past September, Bristol Farms formed a partnership with indoor-farming company Plenty Unlimited Inc. to be the exclusive carrier of its leafy greens for the rest of the year, outside of local markets in the Compton, Calif., area, where the grower recently established a farm. This partnership marked the first time that Bristol Farms has offered indoor vertically grown produce.

This willingness to experiment while sticking with the tried and true extends to its stores: Last March, in celebration of its 40th anniversary, Bristol Farms debuted a new market concept known as Bristol Farms Newfound Market at the Irvine Spectrum Center, in Orange County, Calif. The nearly 34,000-square-foot market features seven of the retailer’s own chef-created restaurant brands that serve dishes made with local and global ingredients. Along with the various restaurant options, the market provides a unique selection of local and international products, with such features as full-service seafood and meat counters, 350 varieties of cheese, an on-site kitchen, a bakery, catering services, and a selection of premium wine, spirits and craft beer, as well as a variety of traditional grocery essentials.

Coborn’s Inc.

Headquarters: St. Cloud, Minn.
Store Count: 66 stores
CEO: Chris Coborn
Operating Area: Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Michigan

Since Coborn’s pushed into a new state, Michigan, in 2021, the company has been on a tear of expanding and remodeling stores that operate under the banners of Coborn’s, Cash Wise Foods, Marketplace Foods, Hornbacher’s and Tadych’s. The grocer recently completed significant updates to a Cash Wise Foods store in Williston, N.D., and has several other Cash Wise locations undergoing similar remodels.

The Williston store features an expanded in-store floral department, a designated area for curbside pickup for guests who choose to order online, and an on-site pharmacy and on-site fuel station. The remodel also includes the addition of an in-store meat smoker, which produces signature smoked meats in-house, and a relocated Bake Shoppe that will continue to churn out tortillas made fresh in-store daily. Plus there are new refrigeration and freezers, along with updated LED lighting, that will allow the location to operate with greater energy efficiency. The company has now built or updated more than two dozen of its Cash Wise locations in accordance with its “next-generation” format.

Led by the family’s fourth-generation CEO, Chris Coborn, the grocer is frequently recognized for its outstanding community service. It annually donates more than $3 million and thousands of volunteer hours toward making a positive difference in communities. The legacy of Coborn’s began in 1921, when Chester Coborn opened a single produce market on Broadway Avenue in Sauk Rapids, Minn. Today, Chester would be proud to know that the employee-owned company is still operating hyper-local neighborhood stores with a reputation for fresh food, superior customer service and exciting promotions.

Dorothy Lane Market

Headquarters: Dayton, Ohio
Store Count: 3
CEO: Norman Mayne
Operating Area: Southwest Ohio

With three locations in southwest Ohio and a fourth in the pipeline, Dorothy Lane Market has proved itself to be a small but mighty force in food retail during its more than 70 years in business. A company that started in 1948 as a fruit stand on the corner of Dorothy Lane and Far Hills Avenue, in Dayton, Ohio, has in recent years not only been recognized nationally for its exceptional customer service, but has also created a bustling e-commerce business for its specialty offerings and its famous Killer Brownie brand.

DLM, as it is affectionately known to its loyal customers, has been ahead of the curve for decades in terms of business practices, product assortment and unique culinary offerings. The grocer’s meat department has stocked proteins free of antibiotics, hormones and steroids, and in strict accordance with animal welfare standards, since 1992, and the company also launched a from-scratch artisan bread program way back in 1994. DLM additionally offers an extensive prepared meal selection, a gourmet coffee stand, and a European-style bakery chock full of pastries ranging from kouign-amann to frosted sugar cookies.

While known for being a Dayton mainstay, DLM has revealed plans to open its fourth outpost in a suburb of neighboring Cincinnati in 2024. The grocer is expanding its presence in other ways through its spinoff business, The Killer Brownie Co., which recently signed on to become the official brownie of the Cincinnati Bengals football team.

Fareway payment

Fareway Stores Inc. 

Headquarters: Boone, Iowa
Store Count: 138
CEO: Reynolds Cramer
Operating Area: Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota

In the Midwest, Fareway grocery stores are known for their impressive full-service meat departments. The company’s stand-alone Meat Markets also offer high-quality products and prepared meals.

The year 2022 proved to be a momentous one for the rapidly growing grocer. Fareway entered its seventh state with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new Meat Market, in Olathe, Kan. The family-owned company now operates 130-plus stores in the Midwest, with more than 12,000 employees. 

The grocer also expanded its digital capabilities. Fareway partnered with Blackhawk Network to bring PayPal and Venmo in-store digital payments to its stores. Customers can now pay using PayPal or Venmo QR codes at checkout. They simply open either the PayPal or Venmo mobile app, click the “scan” button and select the “show to pay” option. 

With labor issues top of mind, Fareway is finding ways to invest in its future workforce. The grocer, a top 10 employer in Iowa, joined a high school registered apprenticeship for meat cutting. Fareway is teaming with Iowa’s Independence High School and the Iowa EDGE-Boone High School on the innovative work-based learning initiative, which gives local students the opportunity to gain job-specific culinary skills and build core skills in communication, collaboration and professionalism. The apprenticeship program isn’t limited to Independence, though; it’s a scalable program, available throughout the state of Iowa, in any community where a Fareway is located.

Additionally, the Midwest grocer does its part to help the environment. In fact, it recognized the importance of conserving natural resources long before “green initiative” and “carbon footprint” became part of our everyday language. For example, way back in 1955, the company began heating its stores by reclaiming heat generated by refrigeration compressors. Most recently, Fareway teamed up with Alliant Energy on an installation of a 1-megawatt solar facility in the Boone Industrial Park on a 6-acre site adjacent to Fareway’s campus headquarters in Iowa.

Heinen’s Fine Foods

Headquarters: Warrensville Heights, Ohio
Store Count: 23
CEO: Jeff Heinen
Operating Area: Ohio and Illinois

Often billed as Cleveland’s first supermarket, Heinen’s Fine Foods was the brainchild of butcher Joe Heinen and first opened its doors to the public in 1933. Heinen operated under the belief that “[y]ou have to find the best to sell the best” — whether it was smoking his own meats or partnering with local growers to offer the freshest produce — and the company keeps that philosophy in mind even today. 

Heinen’s now operates 19 stores throughout northeast Ohio and four in the Chicagoland area, and is run by Joe Heinen’s twin grandsons Jeff and Tom Heinen, along with their children Kim, Kelsey and Jake Heinen. The company prides itself on reimagining the traditional grocery store as a destination for quick-and-easy meals, fresh seafood, wellness guidance, dietary-friendly solutions and even traditional in-store butchers.

Beyond the store, the regional retailer has embraced technology to inform assortment decision-making and leverages data to drive personalization and pricing decisions. Heinen’s also works to exceed customer service standards and keeps a keen eye on its associates’ welfare. The grocer’s “Behind the Blue Shirt” online feature spotlights different employees and shares their takes on why they love working at Heinen’s, their favorite food products available at the store, and more. 

Hy-Vee Bakery
Hy-Vee's Grimes, Iowa, store spotlights cakes in its bakery department.

Hy-Vee Inc.

Headquarters: West Des Moines, Iowa
Store Count: 285 
CEO: Jeremy Gosch
Operating Area: Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin

Hy-Vee is pushing the boundaries as a regional grocer — literally. The Iowa-based retailer is decidedly on the march, pushing deeper into Wisconsin and planning additional openings in Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama in 2023 and beyond, with a goal of topping the 300-store mark.  

The newest Hy-Vee locations, in Ashwaubenon and La Crosse, Wis., welcomed shoppers in late 2022 and are billed as “reimagined” stores with a large footprint — between 105,000 and 125,000 square feet — and amenities that ramp up the in-store experience. The full-service meat counters, for example, include a chef’s station, while the food hall in the Ashwaubenon location has a pub with a sit-down bar, and another outpost from the Wahlburgers restaurant chain, which has become a key Hy-Vee partner. 

The pending stores are even bigger, with the Hy-Vee in Spring Hill, Tenn., expected to span 160,000 square feet. As the employee-owned company broadens its presence to the Southeast, its leadership is also evolving; Hy-Vee recently revealed additional roles and responsibilities for top executives, including its CEO, COO, presidents and chief of staff, all of whom will help guide the organization of more than 93,000 employees. 

With a shopping experience that already includes entertainment like cake “studios” and multiple video kiosks, the retailer is also going all in on entertainment for its sponsored IndyCar Race Weekend, slated for July 21-23 at the Iowa Speedway. The 2023 event includes concerts by big-name acts Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney and Ed Sheeran, among others, reinforcing the notion that this regional retailer has indeed captured wide attention. 

Lowes Foods

Headquarters: Winston-Salem, N.C.
Store Count: 74 stores
President: Tim Lowe
Operating Area: North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia

Despite considerable competition, Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Lowes Foods is the local favorite and a company that has positioned itself for growth with a unique brand of food retailing that makes it worthy of being named a Top Regional.

The company is winning with shoppers across its three-state trading area with a four-pronged value proposition that Lowes Foods President Tim Lowe (no relation to the company’s founders) describes as safety, friendliness, show and efficiency. During the opening session of the Grocery Leaders Executive Forum at Progressive Grocer’s Grocery Industry Week in Orlando, Fla., this past November, Lowe underscored the importance of small data that often holds big revelations.

“A lot of times, the details are in the small data, and there is a lot to be learned from that,” he noted. “What is the consumer telling you?” Consumers were telling Lowes that they wanted more out of their jaunts to the grocery store, something that the leaders and team took to heart. “We thought, ‘How do we create an entertainment company that intersects with consumers around food?’” Lowe recalled.

He shared several examples of ways in which Lowes has transformed its model to become an entertainment company that creates food experiences. One of those ways is the chicken dance. Lowes created entertainment around its fried chicken offerings, from tapping employees to dress up and do the chicken dance in stores when hot chicken was ready, to installing animatronic chicken-themed chandeliers that played chicken dance music. As a result, chicken sales received a strong lift, and the program took on a life of its own on social media and among loyal shoppers-turned-avid-fans.

“We were not living in the status quo,” Lowe noted. These are wise words for any regional grocer looking to thrive in the challenging years ahead.

Stew Leonard’s Taps GrocerKey for Online Catering
Stew Leonard's is embracing a personalized future.

Stew Leonard’s

Headquarters: Norwalk, Conn.
Store Count: 7
CEO: Stew Leonard Jr.
Operating Area: Connecticut, New Jersey and New York

Famous for its over-the-top animatronics, unique one-way layout and next-level customer service, Stew Leonard’s has long made shopping at its seven grocery stores (plus a wine and spirits outlet) in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York a fun adventure. Beyond those well-known attributes, however, the Norwalk, Conn.-based grocer is embracing a personalized future.

Last year, for instance, Stew Leonard’s chose GrocerKey to create a branded e-commerce platform customized to the specific requirements of its catering business and customers. The solution lets the retailer have full control of the catering process, providing responsive and personalized ordering experiences to better meet customer needs, as well as comprehensive order management and analytics to ensure customer satisfaction and sustainable growth.

Additionally, this past September, Stew Leonard’s updated its website to include many new features helping customers shop online and pick up their groceries curbside or have orders delivered to 500 ZIP codes in the retailer’s market area. Users can now see their past purchases and rewards; create shopping lists from weekly specials, recipes and any other items available in-store; shop by category, with the ability to sort by product type; and receive personalized product suggestions based on past purchases. The redesigned site also now offers more videos, recipes and in-depth product descriptions, including profiles of the local farmers, fishermen and ranchers who provide Stew Leonard’s with fresh food.

Given its untiring drive to create a memorable shopping experience, it’s small wonder that Stew Leonard’s was a winner of USA Today’s 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards in 2022, coming in at No. 5.

It takes about five years from conception to opening a new Wegmans store.

Wegmans Food Markets Inc.

Headquarters: Rochester, N.Y.
Store count: 106
CEO: Colleen Wegman
Operating Area: New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts and North Carolina

It’s been said many times that Wegmans has a cult-like following, a notion that’s borne out on social media pages and by influencers who express their devotion to the grocer’s stores and offerings. The New York-based retailer seemingly recognizes the near-giddy excitement that comes with locations in a new market, sharing in a recent company blog post details on what it takes to build a Wegmans.

That behind-the-scenes look provides some key insights into what differentiates and elevates this family-owned, century-old regional food retailer. For example, Wegmans shares that it takes about five years from conception to opening, and notes that teams from stores around the country are brought in ahead of the first day to help stock shelves, prepare ovens and help place signage in just the right spots. On opening day, the team gathers for a hearty Wegmans cheer before the doors officially open to customers who are eagerly lined up outside.

Its approach to new store planning — and food retailing overall — has helped Wegmans garner a number of accolades. In 2022, the chain topped Newsweek’s list of America’s Best Retailers in the supermarket category and ranked third on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work for. Further, Wegmans is No. 34 on the PG 100, Progressive Grocer’s 2022 list of the top food and consumables retailers in North America.

Meanwhile, new legions of Wegmans fans wait in different communities as the grocer gets ready to open an 85,000-square-foot location in Reston, Va., on Feb. 1 and the first-ever Wegmans in the New York City borough of Manhattan, which is slated for a mid- to late-2023 unveiling. That 82,000-square-foot store in the heart of Greenwich Village will offer a curated assortment of items similar to that which has made Wegmans the object of affection among so many East Coast shoppers. 

Weis Markets’ Sales Increase to $1B
Weis Markets is working with fresh grocery platform Invafresh to streamline fresh food operations.

Weis Markets Inc. 

Headquarters: Sunbury, Pa.
Store Count: 197
CEO: Jonathan H. Weis
Operating Area: Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia

Last year, Weis Markets unveiled a more than $150 million capital expenditure plan to support its growth, which included the construction of new stores, the expansion and remodeling of existing units, and the addition of more fuel centers. The Mid-Atlantic grocer has also placed a heavy emphasis on investing in new technology. For example, in the perimeter, Weis is working with fresh grocery platform Invafresh to streamline fresh food operations. The partnership encompasses demand forecasting, in-store production planning, food traceability, recipe management and cut test management at all Weis fresh departments. The Invafresh Fresh Retail Platform uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to reduce waste, making Weis’ in-store operations more efficient. 

For a more unified shopping experience, Weis adopted the cloud-enabled ELERA commerce platform from Toshiba Global Commerce Solutions. The solution encompasses Weis’ e-commerce platform and its 197 physical stores with 2,500-plus retail checkout touchpoints, including point of sale, self-checkout/dual-use lanes and mobile. Through the self-enablement capability and integrated loyalty and promotions management offered by the solution, Weis can easily execute customer affinity programs. 

Meanwhile, to help shoppers amid rising consumer costs, the grocer made a multimillion-dollar investment in May 2022 to lower prices by 13%-33% on hundreds of its best-selling frozen products, which include brand-name and Weis Quality items. The price reductions are an expansion of Weis’ Low, Low Price program, which launched in 2019 and includes more than 7,000 grocery products and nearly 80 produce items. 

The company also strives to be a good steward of the environment. According to its “2021 Weis by Nature Sustainability Report,” the grocer has reduced greenhouse-gas emissions by 55% since 2008 by taking part in energy efficiency programs, assessing its energy choices, lowering refrigerant leakage, and upgrading lighting, refrigeration, transportation and other tech.

The report also highlights the retailer’s ongoing commitment to the communities it serves, including the expansion of its donation program to more than $4 million — an 18% increase from 2020 — and almost 2.7 million pounds of food. 

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