Reports of the Norge Farm Fresh’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
As Farm Fresh locations across Virginia were sold or closed this year, the store in Norge will remain open under the same name but with new management, regional manager John Black said.
Black oversees two Farm fresh stores that were purchased in July by Kumar Bhavanasi, president and CEO of New Jersey-based IT service provider First Tek Inc. In addition to the Farm Fresh at 115 Norge Lane, Bhavanasi also now owns the store at 928 Diamond Springs Road in Virginia Beach.
“His plan is to keep it a traditional grocery store and keeping it rolling,” Black said. “The gas pumps are open. It’s business as normal…It’s going to stay your neighborhood supermarket.”
‘What are we going to do?’
Bhavanasi acquired the two stores in mid-July, Black said, amid efforts by grocery conglomerate SuperValu to offload the Farm Fresh brand.
SuperValu announced in March that it had reached agreements to sell 21 of its 38 Farm Fresh stores and would search for buyers for the remaining 17.
Two stores in Greater Williamsburg were sold to rival grocers. Harris Teeter purchased the Farm Fresh at 4511 John Tyler Highway, and Kroger bought the store at 6500 George Washington Memorial Highway in Yorktown.
The Norge Farm Fresh was not sold at the time, but employees were given 60-day layoff notices in mid-March as SuperValu searched for bidders.
“It was definitely tense. Every day we came to work wondering if that was the day we’d find out what was going on with our future at Farm Fresh,” store manager Scott Shipley said. “I think all of us were looking at, ‘What are we going to do?’ if we didn’t have a job. Half of my staff had applied for other jobs other places just because we all need to work.”
Bhavanasi closed on the Norge Farm Fresh on July 12, Black said, and the store operated continuously during the transition. However, Shipley said rumors of the store’s impending closure continue to linger in the community — and that has caused his store to take a hit in business.
“As recently as mid-June, when you would Google ‘Farm Fresh in Norge,’ it came up as permanently closed,” Shipley said. “The store on John Tyler closed, and the opinion was, once that closed we would close, too. We’re kind of at a disadvantage because we sit back off the road. The pizza shop, the bank are all in front of us. You really can’t see the store unless you know it’s here.”
Some longtime customers stopped shopping at the store, thinking it was closing, Shipley said. Now the challenge is to let them know they can come back.
“I really appreciate our loyal customers, and it’s been a transition for them, too,” Shipley said. “I have customers that have been shopping here for 20 years. I just want them to know we appreciate their support through the years. We’re glad to still be here and we hope to take care of their grocery and other needs for years to come.”
‘Glad to still be here’
As Shipley and Black spread the word that their store is still open, they said their customers shouldn’t expect too many major changes from the new management.
The store’s hours will remain the same, opening at 6 a.m. and closing at 11 p.m. seven days a week. Customers can fill their tanks at the gas station until 10 each night.
Both the in-store pharmacy and Starbucks closed when SuperValu sold the store, but Shipley said he’s optimistic that the pharmacy eventually will reopen. Starbucks does not operate in independent supermarkets, only chains, but Shipley said he is looking for a regional coffee vendor to fill their spot in the store.
“This is a good location. It has a great neighborhood,” Shipley said. “We were really sorry that the pharmacy was sold because that was a big part of our business, and a lot of people that filled prescriptions also shopped for other things.”
In the meantime, Shipley said customers can expect to see improvements in other areas. For example, the store will be installing two new fryers to help fulfill orders for its popular chicken.
“These have huge baskets so we can cook a lot of chicken at a time,” Shipley said. “We’ve been turning away orders on weekends, especially graduation, just because we have limited capacity. Those two new fryers will definitely put us in business for that.”
The store will still continue to carry the same products on its shelves, but Shipley said they may look to add to their inventory in the next year.
“We’re looking at getting local produce but … we’re almost out of the season at this point,” he said. “As far as setting up with a new vendor to bring in tomatoes or corn, that is something we’re going to look at, getting as much produce locally as possible.”
Shipley is looking to hire some new staff as well, as some employees found work elsewhere as the fate of Farm Fresh hung in the balance. SuperValu also had a hiring freeze in place since last fall.
Store employees who stuck it out through the transition can now go to work without a cloud hanging over their heads.
“We’re glad to still be here and we’re glad to have jobs,” he added. “That’s a big deal for 70 of us.”