Kneepads appear to be in vogue along the aisles of the Reserve Street Safeway on March 9. Vendors from throughout the region have gathered to relabel thousands of products as the decades-old corporate grocery changes hands. Several workers bustle about the wine department. More crowd the dairy section. They work from shelf to shelf, row to row, some standing and others crawling. The new tags are lime green, which Craig Holtet, co-owner of the new Missoula Fresh Market, feels will be the most noticeable difference for customers when the store reopens at 9 a.m.
"It'll be pretty subtle," Holtet says. "It's mostly just the color of the tags."
Over the next couple months, however, people will notice a gradual change as Missoula Fresh Market settles in on Reserve Street and at the former Safeway on West Broadway, where a similar change-over began this week. Contractors will rebrand every cart and swap out the signs on the building's exterior. Fresh Market will continue operating the gas stations at both stores under new branding. Employees will sell off as much of the Safeway-specific products as they can. Any trace of the former corporate owner will vanish, allowing each store to, as Holtet puts it, "create their own vibe and get their own feel."
"These stores, we would love to have them be an icon 15, 20 years from now and have their own separate personalities," Holtet says. "They don't have to be the same. This store has Starbucks, and the [Broadway] store is going to have a market called Missoula Fresh Market Coffee featuring Black Coffee [Roasting Co.]."
Holtet and Ron Ramsbacher have based much of the concept for their Missoula Fresh Markets on the Orange Street Food Farm, which the pair purchased in late 2013. Holtet sees each new location becoming a reflection of the neighborhood it serves, a vision shared by Safeway store manager turned Fresh Market store manager Andrew Hill. As vendors busy themselves with relabeling, Hill succeeds in catching a short break near the pile of Safeway registers employees have already removed. He's been at the Reserve Street store overseeing changeover efforts since 5 a.m. and has still more work to do. But the store he'll walk into tomorrow will be a "neighborhood destination," he says. It will also be the first time he's worked for a company other than Safeway since starting as a bag-boy in Washington state 17 years ago.
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
- Tim Topp of Missoula-based cheese wholesaler Topp Company restocks a cheese display with new products at the Missoula Fresh Market on Reserve Street.
"The autonomy to tailor this store to my clientele," Hill says, naming the biggest changes that will come from managing Missoula Fresh Market. "Not having to ask permission to do a certain display or getting the authorization to let Girl Scouts out in front of the store sell cookies. I can make those decisions at the ground level."
About a year ago, Hill tried to react to the mounting popularity of Lewis and Clark Brewing Company's canned products by getting approval to sell those cans at Safeway. Despite the Helena brewery's proximity to Missoula and the demand from local consumers, the corporate structure proved too great a roadblock and Hill's efforts fell through. Now, he says, those roadblocks no longer exist.
"With Lewis and Clark," he says, "it's just a classic example of a product that I should have had, wanted to have, but just couldn't get because of the red tape associated with a large grocery chain."
As Hill shares the story, a woman walks in with a bundle of new Missoula Fresh Market employee badges. Each hangs from a green braid of recycled fly-fishing line made by Missoula-based Flyvines. The idea to use the lanyards came from a river guide, Hill says, latching onto it as yet another example of the new store's receptiveness to local ideas.
Most of the action tonight is going down in the deli department, where representatives from Missoula-based wholesale cheese distributor Topp Company are completely restocking a display island. Deli manager April Gross scurries about the nearby kitchen, trying to prepare for a host of new menu items including a chicken recipe that will be battered and cooked fresh on-site. It was great working for Safeway, she says, but the biggest challenge for her in the changeover was just controlling the anticipation leading up to 6 p.m. Now she's basically "my own boss."
This week's changeover at both the Reserve and Broadway locations may be subtle, but Holtet has set his sights on an elaborate and extensive grand opening later in May. The event will span 12 weeks, he says, with an ever-changing list of product deals. Overall, Holtet believes the change will be positive not just for community vibe but for price. No club cards, no sales gimmicks, he says. Just "simple, easy pricing."
"It should be reasonable, straightforward," he says. "I want somebody to walk through here and not thinking like we're playing a gimmick and trying to get all the money in their pocket."