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Top Regionals
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01/11/2022

Top 10 Regional Operators to Watch

This year's group of outstanding operators are on Progressive Grocer's radar for their way of innovating, differentiating and finding new approaches to serve their communities

The 2022 class of 10 grocers featured as Progressive Grocer’s Top Regionals is notable for a variety of unique reasons. For some, it’s a business model that includes convenience stores, an extensive foodservice program or a focus on the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group. For others, the company’s ownership structure makes them stand out, from family-owned to publicly held or backed by private equity. Top regional status also could be a function of longevity, rabid shopper loyalty or early adoption of a trend gone mainstream.

These traits and more are possessed by this year’s group of Top Regionals, which make them worthy of the distinction as well as formidable competitors for those that operate in the same markets. To make that determination, PG editors surveyed the competitive landscape to identify a diverse group of companies with interesting attributes and stories to tell. The companies we singled out for our Top Regional designation are as follows:

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10 Regionals to Watch

Bashas’ Family of Stores

Headquarters: Chandler, Ariz.
Store Count: 118
CEO: Edward Basha III
Regions: Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and the Navajo Nation

Ask any Arizonan to name the state’s “hometown grocer,” and more than likely, the name will be Bashas’. Eddie Basha opened his family’s first grocery store in Chandler in 1932. From there, the company grew into a 100-plus store chain across Arizona, New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, catering to every market from Native Americans to Hispanics. A new year brings new opportunities for the Southwest’s top regional grocer, however. Bashas’ will be ringing in 2022 with new ownership, courtesy of an agreement with California-based regional grocer Raley’s Holding Co. According to the companies, the agreement brings together two leading indie grocers with rich legacies and shared values: employee achievement, exceptional customer service and a deep commitment to local communities. CEO Edward Basha and Keith Knopf, president and CEO of Raley’s, told Bashas’ 13,000 employees that the company’s store banners, employment and operations in Arizona would continue without change or interruption. As a fully formed operating company within the Raley’s enterprise, Bashas’ will also retain its corporate headquarters, stores and distribution center in Arizona. According to Basha, the pandemic showed his family that it was time to sell the chain. “The added scale would be an added benefit to our members and also to the customers,” he told an Arizona newspaper. “It was a question of taking an honest assessment, putting our egos aside, and considering what was best for our members and customers.”

Gina Acosta

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Top Regionals

Cardenas Markets

Headquarters: Ontario, Calif.
Store Count: 60
CEO: Doug Sanders
Region: California, Arizona and Nevada

Cardenas Markets is a top regional grocer to keep an eye on due to its ownership structure, senior leadership, history of acquisitions and a growing base of shoppers.

In less than five years, Cardenas has branched out from an established presence in Southern California with a focus on serving Hispanic shoppers, to extend to Northern California, Las Vegas and Arizona.

The growth began in 2016, when private-equity firm KKR acquired Cardenas after investing in the retailer the prior year. In 2017, Cardenas merged its 31 locations with Mi Pueblo, a chain of 15 locations in the San Francisco area that had emerged from bankruptcy in 2014 with the backing of Victory Park Capital. KKR and Victory then rebranded the Mi Pueblo locations in 2017, and also funded Cardenas’s full ownership of the seven-store Los Altos Ranch Market chain in Phoenix, a retailer it had invested in alongside Northgate Gonzalez Market, with which it competes in Southern California.

Four additional Cardenas openings followed in 2019, and the June 2020 opening of a store in the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier gave Cardenas 60 locations. However, that milestone was short-lived, as roughly nine months later the Whittier store location was sold.

Going forward, Cardenas has ample expansion opportunities, given the favorable demographics of its three-state trading area and the acquisitive nature of its private-equity owners. However, the company also faces plenty of direct competition from other Hispanic-focused grocers such as Northgate and the El Super chain, the latter of which is backed by the Bodega Latina Corp. subsidiary of leading Mexican retailer Grupo Comercial Chedraui.

As Cardenas pursues future growth, it does so under the leadership of CEO Doug Sanders, who succeeded John Gomez in that role in January 2020. Prior to Cardenas, Sanders spent 15 years with Sprouts Farmers Market in top executive roles before departing the company in 2017.

Mike Troy

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Top Regionals

Coborn’s

Headquarters: St. Cloud, Minn.
Store Count: 130
CEO: Chris Coborn
Region: Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Michigan

The legacy of Coborn’s began in 1921, when Chester Coborn opened a single produce market on Broadway Avenue in Sauk Rapids, Minn. Today, the grocery chain operates more than 130 grocery, convenience, liquor and other retail locations across Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota, and employs more than 9,000 people – but that’s about to change in 2022. In December 2021, Coborn’s finalized a deal to acquire Tadych’s Econofoods locations in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Minnesota retailer is changing the name of the banners to Tadych’s Marketplace Foods. The six former Econofoods stores will be run by employee-owned Coborn’s, which plans to retain the 800 or so current associates. Through the acquisition, Coborn’s has pushed into a new state, Michigan, and added to its store count. With this acquisition, the Coborn’s grocery store lineup will grow to 66 locations, operating under the banners of Coborn’s, Cash Wise Foods, Marketplace Foods, Hornbacher’s and now Tadych’s. Led by the family’s fourth-generation CEO Chris Coborn, the grocer is frequently recognized for its outstanding community service. The company annually donates more than $3 million and thousands of volunteer hours toward making a positive difference in communities. Recently, Coborn’s has been focused on wellness by investing in health education initiatives such as the Dietitian’s Choice and Food Facts programs, and the hiring of staff dietitians to help educate food buyers, customers and the community at large. 

—Gina Acosta

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Top Regionals

Giant Eagle Inc.

Headquarters: Pittsburgh 
Store Count: 474
CEO: Laura Karet
Region: Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and Indiana

Founded in 1931, Giant Eagle Inc. has grown to be a leading food, fuel and pharmacy retailer in its five-state operating region, with almost $10 billion in annual sales. A number of strategic partnerships highlighting digital innovation were key to helping the food retailer earn the distinction of being named a top regional. For example, Giant Eagle made a name for itself in 2021 by being at the forefront of digital payment adoption, becoming the first U.S. grocery and convenience store chain to accept PayPal and Venmo payments at the register. 

To enhance its online shopping experience for customers, Giant Eagle partnered with retail tech company Flipp on a next-generation digital circular. This new feature is integrated into the Giant Eagle mobile app, offering an omnichannel digital experience with engaging video and an “add to cart” feature that not only provides greater product visibility, but also enhances convenience and mobile/on-demand access for items on sale. 

Giant Eagle’s digital innovation can additionally be found in the pharmacy department, where it uses new tech to keep communities safe and healthy. For instance, the food retailer has installed out-of-home media company Mesmerize’s digital TV screens in 165 Giant Eagle pharmacies. The network features timely content from Mesmerize’s patient education library, combined with Giant Eagle branded content, including cooking segments, information about home health care products, and key pharmacy services. Another recent partner, InnerScope Hearing Technologies, enables Giant Eagle to deploy self-check hearing screening kiosks. These automated kiosks are just another example of how this Top Regional is thriving in a digital world. 

Marian Zboraj

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top regionals

Kowalski’s Markets

Headquarters: Woodbury, Minn.
Store Count: 11
CEO: Kris Kowalski Christiansen
Region: Minnesota

With 11 locations in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Kowalski’s Markets follows its own true north to attract and retain customers. Since its passion-project founding in 1983 by Mary Anne and the late Jim Kowalski, the Minnesota grocer has focused on adding value to the shopping experience through a distinctive look and assortment.

In an Upper Midwest region that’s both urban and surrounded by lakes and vacation homes, Kowalski’s went its own way with stores designed to convey a European-village flair and offerings that provide shoppers with a sense of discovery. The retailer creates ample opportunities for such discoveries by carrying a wide variety of  locally made and grown products, from ice cream to free-range chicken to fresh flowers and produce. 

In addition to a specialty grocery department featuring an eclectic mix of local, gourmet, organic and natural offerings, Kowalski’s has become a destination among local shoppers for its fresh products. Through a central facility that includes a bakery, commissary kitchen and meat production area, the grocer is able to provide its locations with goods that reflect shoppers’ interest in homemade artisan foods. 

Heralding the “joy of good food,” Kowalski’s helps customers elevate their knowledge through culinary classes (depending on the COVID situation) and a savvy staff that includes cheesemongers, wine-pairing experts and often-on-hand family members, including owner Mary Anne Kowalski and her daughter, CEO Kris Kowalski Christiansen.

While food is a focus, Kowalski’s is also a go-to spot in the region for other consumables: It’s the only grocer in the Twin Cities region with a department devoted to gifts. 

Lynn Petrak

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Top Regionals

Market Basket

Headquarters: Tewksbury, Mass.
Store Count: 90
CEO: Arthur T. Demoulas
Region: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island

What makes its associates and customers so fanatical about Market Basket, a venerable New England institution now entering its 105th year? The feelings of both camps can be summed up in one word: loyalty. 

An ugly power struggle between cousins for control of the company culminated in an unprecedented seven-week boycott of its stores in 2014 as workers and shoppers alike rallied in support of ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas, who ultimately bought out his rivals and triumphantly retook the helm of Market Basket. Bill Marsden, longtime director of operations for the company and later a key advisor, told Progressive Grocer at the time that a key ingredient in Market Basket’s “tremendous success” was its tight-knit, extended-family structure, which focuses on promoting associates from within, hiring multiple generations of families and allowing rank-and-file employees direct access to top executives.

Meanwhile, for shoppers, there are hard-to-beat value prices and superior service, with each location espousing a “customers first” philosophy.

As Daniel Korschun and Grant Welker write in their 2015 book “We Are Market Basket”: “Many companies are successful in terms of financial performance. Much fewer are successful in making a difference in people’s lives that others cannot imitate.”

Additionally, Market Basket stores’ proudly retro appearance belies the pioneering moves of the company, which in 1960 was an early adopter of private label products, carrying DeMoulas brand coffee, tea, mayonnaise, matchbooks and more in all stores, and in 1963 adopted an associate profit-sharing plan so successful that it’s still in use today.

Bridget Goldschmidt

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Top Regionals

PCC Community Markets

Headquarters: Seattle
Store Count: 16 (Downtown Seattle store slated to open winter 2022)
CEO: Brad Brown (interim)
Region: Washington State  (Puget Sound region)

Whatever supermarket operators across the country are doing to create a more sustainable world, PCC Community Markets probably did it first. Having begun as a food-buying club of 15 Seattle families back in 1953, PCC (short for Puget Consumers Co-op) became aware of the connection between the health of the planet and of people as early as 1971, when the grocer shifted its focus to natural foods. Noted store leadership at the time: “We’re trying to cut out unnatural, chemical-stuffed food products and cut down on ecological pollutants. It’s time we became more concerned about what goes into our mouths.”

Since that time, PCC’s sustainability moves have included being the first food retailer to participate in Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch Program, in 2004; establishing a sustainability task force in the same year to reduce its environmental and social impact; opening the first grocery store to earn LEED Gold Certification as a “green” building, in Edmonds, Wash., in 2007; installing WISErg Harvester enzyme-driven digesters that repurpose food scraps into organic liquid fertilizer at five stores, starting in 2013; and adopting animal welfare and other sourcing standards that are among the most stringent in the industry.

That commitment to the environment continues to this day, as illustrated by just two of the co-op’s efforts this past year: reducing single-use plastics by discontinuing the sale of plastic water bottles smaller than 1 gallon, and working with Washington state regulators to enable customers to once more use more of their own reusable containers in PCC stores.

—Bridget Goldschmidt

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Top Regionals

Plum Market

Headquarters: Farmington Hills, Mich.
Store Count: 24
CEO: Matt Jonna
Region: Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Texas

The grocery industry is filled with unique concepts and operating models, but few are as differentiated as Plum Market. The company was founded in 2007 by Matt and Marc Jonna to focus on offering all-natural, organic, specialty and locally sourced items in settings designed to offer an exceptional experience and service. The pair grew up in the grocery world, as their father had founded the Merchant of Vino chain of gourmet stores, which was sold to Whole Foods Market in 1997.

Today, Plum Market operates 24 locations that blur the line between a traditional grocer — albeit a very upscale one – and a high-quality restaurant, thanks to an attractively presented, on-trend offering of prepared foods.

The company’s stores range from approximately 8,000 to 25,000 square feet, and its strategy of serving the market with a unique real estate approach mirrors that of its distinctive product assortment. For example, there are five Plum Market stores in total, consisting of four in the greater Detroit area and one in Chicago. There are seven foodservice-focused Plum Market Kitchen locations, ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 square feet: five in the Detroit area, one in Cleveland and a recently opened location in Terminal B at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Also, there are 12 Plum Market locations dedicated to foodservice, all of which are located at venues such as businesses, educational institutions, and health care and entertainment facilities throughout Michigan.

While Plum Market’s roots are in Michigan, the company is taking a risk this year that could determine whether it can pivot from a regional favorite to a concept with national expansion potential. Plans call for new locations to open in Aventura, Fla., an upscale area north of Miami; Hollywood, Calif.; and Washington, D.C.

—Mike Troy

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Sendiks storefront

Sendik’s Food Market

Headquarters: Milwaukee
Store Count: 17 (including four convenience stores)
CEO: Ted Balistreri
Region: Wisconsin

As Sendik’s Food Market approaches its 100th year in the Milwaukee area, there’s no resting on local laurels. Actually, there’s not much resting at all for the Balistreri family, who still runs the business encompassing 13 grocery stores and four convenience stores. 

On store visits, CEO and third-generation co-owner Ted Balistreri stops what he’s doing to help customers find something or just to greet them. Connecting with shoppers and making the business better likewise remains a priority for his 86-year-old father, Ted Balistreri Sr. “Our dad still enjoys coming to the stores and is very engaged,” says the younger Balistreri. “From years and years in the industry, he sees things and will ask, ‘Why are you doing this?’ — and he’s right.”

Beyond customer service and continual improvement, Sendik’s has built a core following through its in-store experience. The décor in most stores leans toward the upscale, with features like hardwood and carpeted flooring, vibrant wall art, and colorful lighting. The product assortment includes hundreds of items from beloved Wisconsin brands with which Sendik’s has long-term relationships. Another hallmark is its general merchandise section, which is set up like a boutique and offers a curated selection of gifts, home goods and apparel.

The ability to act nimbly has differentiated Sendik’s in a region with many local and national competitors. In the past few years, the company has opened a new store in a bustling suburban shopping center, added a Fresh2GO convenience banner, refreshed several locations, and expanded curbside pickup and delivery services. Will it grow beyond the metro area in Milwaukee? “We’ll see,” says Ted Balistreri with a cryptic grin.

—Lynn Petrak

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Top Regionals

Weis Markets Inc.

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

Mid-Atlantic food retailer Weis Markets Inc. embodies what it means to be a top regional, with 166 of its 197 stores in Pennsylvania (117) and Maryland (49). The grocer has been serving the market since 1912 with a variety of format sizes, ranging from 8,000 to 71,000 square feet. 
Weis was recently able to increase its 2021 capital expenditures outlook to $150 million, up 11.1% from the $135 million budget revealed at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in April. This top regional believes that opening new stores and remodeling existing ones are vital for future company growth, as the location and appearance of its stores are important components in attracting new customers and retaining current ones. On an average basis, the company dedicates one-third of its capital budget to new stores annually, excluding acquisitions. Generally, another 15%-20% of the capital budget is dedicated to store remodels. 

The grocer has also been known to support communities throughout its seven-state region by investing in local farmers. In Pennsylvania alone, Weis annually buys more than 20 million pounds of locally grown produce. It’s also a good steward of the environment. The retailer recently reported that more than 90% of its stores no longer use ozone-depleting refrigerants, and that its distribution, manufacturing and support facilities have also transitioned away from the use of these refrigerants. These moves helped Weis recently become the first grocer to achieve Ratio Institute’s Sustainable Food Retail Certification. The distinction will no doubt help boost the company’s long-term positive momentum. 

—Marian Zboraj

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