By Dan Haar, Hartford Courant
Best Market, a chain of 17 supermarkets in Long Island, New York City and New Jersey, is making landfall in Connecticut with a store set to open as early as Friday in Newington.
The store, near the town center at the site of a former Waldbaum’s Food Mart that closed a few years ago, is about 32,000 square feet — and is not likely to remain as the chain’s only Connecticut location. The company is hiring as many as 150 people and is scrambling toward a possible “soft” opening Friday with a grand opening a week or so after that, if all goes well.
CEO and President Rebecca Philbert, busily overseeing the scene as a sign company installed the large letters above the front door late Tuesday morning, stopped for a minute to describe Best Market’s strategy — not an easy task for a full-service market that appears to combine several niches.
“We’re a fresh foods store that sells groceries,” Philbert said, with a disproportionate share of sales coming from perishable foods, including meats and dairy and features such as an olive bar.
The company bought the entire Northwood Plaza shopping center on Lowrey Place where the store is located, indicating its commitment, Philbert said.
Dry goods shelves in the aisles of the Newington store were largely stocked by Tuesday as construction workers, Best Market employees and vendors walked in and out. “They have the freshest produce at the best price,” said Burr McDermott, regional manager for Kayem Foods Inc., a maker of meat products. “Meats as well.”
Best Market is in the midst of changing its brand from Best Yet Market, across the chain. The family-owned company started in 1994 in Ronkonkoma, in Suffolk County, Long Island. The owners’ father had run a produce business in New York City.
“We’re super-excited and we can’t wait to open and show what we’ve got,” said Jonathan Sender, the marketing vice president, from the main office. “It’s something they’re really looking forward to in that community.”
That’s certainly true for Antonio and Maria Teixeira, retired factory workers originally from Portugal, who were walking past the parking lot near their house. Antonio said he’d sometimes walk to the market. “Depends on the groceries I’ve got to buy.”
Best will need to be more than a neighborhood market, of course. Sender wouldn’t give average sales figures per store, but he said, “We anticipate it being a very, very successful store….the future is wide open.”
In greater Hartford, Best Market enters a highly competitive grocery marketplace with Stop & Shop as the largest player, family-owned Big Y Foods and Whole Foods very active, and also including Walmart — which has a growing presence. Because Best Market offers a range of natural and organic foods, some people have called it a slightly more downscale Whole Foods, although it’s not a discount warehouse.
Sender couldn’t resist taking a shot at Whole Foods when I asked for his reaction to that comparison. “You don’t have to spend your whole paycheck when you’re shopping with us,” he said, referring to the derisive “Whole Paycheck” nickname.
Sender said he considered the store to be a destination for shoppers not just from Newington, despite its midsize floor footprint, smaller, for example, than many Big Y stores.
Considering the general lack of growth in metro areas like Hartford, a new supermarket entrant must take market share from existing stores, said Jon Springer, associate editor of Supermarket News, a trade publication. So, what would give Best Market executives the confidence to expand into a region 100 miles from its nearest store?
Best Market bought the 70,00-square-foot Northwood Plaza — rundown and largely vacant — for $2.25 million in an auction in March, seven years after the previous owners paid $6 million. The company has refurbished the entire center, much of which remains vacant.
Aside from a good real estate deal, the Best Market owners’ draw could be help from a major supplier, or a belief that their strategy is superior, or knowledge that their location is underserved. “There’s any number of reasons these guys might see a business opprtunity here,” Springer said. “Grocery is always competitive.”
With markets always looking for something to set them apart, Best Market’s Newington store — the 18th in the chain — will include a large meat smoker, Sender said. The company launched that feature in its three-story Harlem location earlier this year, and it’s been a success there.
Anytime a new entrant hits the market, it’s good for the region’s customers. But unlike some companies, such as the wholesale clubs, Best Market refuses to be pinned down to a certain niche. Sender declined to say, for example, whether Best Market will stick to largely middle-class towns such as Newington, or perhaps go after more upscale Farmington Valley towns.
“Anyone who eats is our customer,” he said.