ST. PETERSBURG — The former Lucky’s Market at Tyrone Square attracted more than one bidder.
When Lucky’s announced it was suddenly closing its stores and filing for bankruptcy, Florida grocers scrambled to put their names in the ring to take over the specialty food market’s most successful locations.
Hitchcock’s Market, a lesser known independent chain, put bids in against big-league grocers like Aldi and Florida leaders such as Publix and Winn-Dixie. The Alvarez family, which runs Hitchcock’s, scooped up the sole Lucky’s Market in Tampa Bay.
The Tyrone spot is now home to the first Hitchcock’s Green Market, which opened last month as Hitchcock’s first specialty store with a focus on natural and organic products. Its other locations are traditional supermarkets. The St. Pete store is one of the first, if not the first, former Lucky’s shops already up and running under its new operators.
“We moved as quickly as we could to open,” said Giselle Alvarez, Hitchcock’s chief operating officer. “We wanted to capture as many of the Lucky’s shoppers as possible.”
Winning the location was a whirlwind: It wasn’t long after the family business squared away the new lease before the pandemic began. The Hitchcock’s team was in the midst of trying to grow their Florida store count from 10 to 12 as the the number of COVID-19 cases grew through the state. They also just opened another supermarket in Homosassa inside a former Save A Lot.
The new Hitchcock’s in St. Pete is facing challenges from the virus that its owners couldn’t have predicted back when it placed the winning bid. The store is still hiring and training staff while trying to social distance. At the same time, it’s advertising a new brand to shoppers who are limiting their outings.
“I think a lot of people are trying to stick to what they know right now,” Alvarez said. “They’re taking one grocery trip a week, maybe for only 30 minutes. But we hope people are going to be wiling to shop in a new place.”
Hitchcock’s will feel familiar to anyone who shopped at Lucky’s. Hitchcock’s kept a lot of what worked about Lucky’s concept: an apothecary section with supplements and wellness items, organic foods, prepared meals, tap beer, a smoothie bar and bulk bins.
“We’re also trying to be more of a one-stop shop,” said the store’s manager, Amanda Layne.
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Hitchcock’s has a lot of the niche items that made Lucky’s popular from vegan burgers and cashew cheese to ramen takeout and fresh thick-cut bacon. But Hitchcock’s has also added traditional brands some natural stores won’t touch like Coke, Gatorade and Tide detergent.
“People don’t know our name,” Alvarez said. “Without ever being inside, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I wish it was a Trader Joe’s, I wish it was a Whole Foods.’ But come in and try us out.”
The store is likely getting fewer passersby than Lucky’s, which closed two months before coronavirus spread through the United States. Two chain restaurants in Tyrone plaza near the new grocery store are closed, likely for good. Some shoppers are still avoiding malls, like the one at Tyrone Square, to limit their time in crowds during the pandemic.
While traditional retailers have struggled to bounce back amid the pandemic, grocers and the big-box stores with groceries have had record sales. That is a promising foundation other new businesses don’t have right now, said Jeff Green, a retail consultant with Hoffman Strategy Group.
“Their timing was perfect just because food stores are doing so well,” Green said of Hitchcock’s. ”Making that transfer, especially if it looks and feels like Lucky’s, is a smart move.”
Lucky’s didn’t fail because stores performed poorly sales wise, but because the brand expanded too fast to turn the profits investors wanted, Green said. The St. Pete Lucky’s performed well sales wise, which is what attracted Hitchcock’s to bid on it.
Layne used to work at a Lucky’s in Orlando. A lot of the store’s employees used to work at the Lucky’s, meaning most of them hadn’t been working in retail during the pandemic until now. Everyone is in masks. There are no team huddles.
Paper products are hard to stock, Layne said. The store has the essentials from toilet paper to paper towels, but not in the variety its owners would like. That’s something true for most grocers right now because of the surge of pandemic buying that peaked in March and April.
Because of the hit to the economy, some companies are only manufacturing their top-selling items, Alvarez said. That can leaves empty spaces on the shelves. Layne said that also has meant the store has the space to bring in more local brands, from Florida-brewed beer to bread baked in Tampa.
“It’s so much easier to get local in the store,” Layne said, comparing the process to what it was like for Lucky’s. “I can have new brands on the shelf within a day. Vendors have been coming in and we’ve been able to talk face to face.”
That gives Hitchcock’s a hometown feel. Hitchcock’s 11 other locations are in rural parts of Florida. The store was founded in 1945. The founding family sold it in 2008 to an out-of-state chain. That’s who Giselle Alvarez’s father, Carlos Alvarez, purchased Hitchcock’s from last year.
Giselle Alvarez said their rural supermarkets are the kind of stores where cashiers know shoppers’ names. They hope to bring a sense of that to the St. Pete’s Green Market.
The chain is based in Alachua, but the Alvarezs make regular trips to the St. Pete store. Giselle Alvarez says you might catch her father steering the floor scrubber or her mother stocking shelves.
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