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Robert Trigaux

Sweetbay's exiting Midtown: Does anybody really know what's going on?




Sweetbay's much heralded Midtown store will close in February as part of the supermarket's major cutback in the Tampa Bay area. Photo: Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times.

Wake up and good morning. Watching the uproar over Sweetbay Supermarket's decision to shut its Midtown store among the 33 closings announced last week begs the question: Does anybody really know what's going on? Let's look at the blooper highlights:

1. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster rants from the podium that Sweetbay blindsided the city which had subsidized the supermarket's opening a store in Midtown, the lower-income, mostly African American community in the city. Sweetbay responds that company officials met with Foster on April 6, 2011 to discuss ways to try and generate more business for its stores. Foster says he has too many meetings and can't recall that one. And Sweetbay certainly did not sufficiently stress the dire situation of the Midtown property -- which the city encouraged by essentially giving the land for the store to be built upon. Read this comedy of forgetfulness here.

The point? The city did get some type of warning that things were not going well. Either Foster wasn't paying attention or Sweetbay wasn't specific enough.

2. What's this? In April of 2012, a Sweetbay official said he was pleased with the financial performance of its Midtown store. Really? The remarks of Sweetbay vice president of retail operations Eddie Garcia appear in Tampa Bay Business Journal Margie Manning's story with the now painful headline "Prospering in Midtown requires listening, niche." In that story, Garcia said Sweetbay was disappointed in the first year performance of its Midtown store. "There was skepticism in the community. I don't think they accepted us at first," he said. With the help of then Mayor Rick Baker and then Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis (later fired by current Mayor Foster), Garcia said, Sweetbay toured area black churches. Said Garcia: "We told out story and sales came around."

The point? Sweetbay's Midtown store may not have been a money machine for the supermarket but its own vice president said less than a year ago that the chain was pleased with how things were going.

3. Consider this scenario. The struggling Belgium-based corporate parent of a U.S. subsidiary of multiple supermarket chains decides it needs to cut costs. It moves quickly to pick 33 Sweetbay locations that are the least promising of the 100-plus store chain in west central Florida. Meanwhile, CEO of Sweetbay back in 2004 that agreed to open a Sweetbay in Midtown -- Shelley Broader -- is long gone from running the chain. Mike Vail, the CEO in recent years for Sweetbay, recently left to take another job in another state for the Belgian parent. Sweetbay's new president, Brad Wise, so far remains invisible to the community.

The point? Sweetbay's institutional memory of the real reasons it agreed to open a Midtown location -- happening in the wake of especially difficult times in that part of town -- has evaporated with time and turnover. I suggest we would be facing a very different situation with Sweetbay in Midtown if Rick Baker and Go Davis were still running the city. (Check out Tampa Bay Times writer Sandra Gadsden's recent take on Midtown.)

Instead, we seem to be watching the blind city belatedly trying to communicate with a supermarket chain run by a blind and distant owner. 

-- Robert Trigaux, Business Columnist, Tampa Bay Times


[Last modified: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 7:23am]


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