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Winn-Dixie came out of bankruptcy. Now it’s growing through the pandemic.

Midway through his five-year plan to revitalize the brand, CEO Anthony Hucker talks about the latest news from Southeastern Grocers.

COVID-19 has proven to be chaos for grocers facing a surge in demand for at-home staples from toilet paper to yeast.

For Winn-Dixie parent company Southeastern Grocers, the pandemic meant a new wave of shoppers and an opportunity to prove itself a changed brand. Since the company emerged from bankruptcy in 2018, CEO Anthony Hucker has pledged to revitalize its supermarket chains. The company has since shredded unprofitable locations, bought several new stores and grown its digital footprint.

Southeastern Grocers is based in Jacksonville and operates four brands: Winn-Dixie, Fresco y Más, Harvey’s and BI-LO, which it’s in the midst of selling off. The Tampa Bay Times caught up with Hucker about the grocer’s latest moves.

You’re about halfway through the five-year plan Southeastern Grocers announced after emerging from bankruptcy. So what’s the progress report?

I sometimes say, we’re in the people business, we just happen to sell groceries. But we really are a people-first organization. That’s the foundation of our culture. And we just found out that we have been certified as a Great Place to Work, which is a tremendous achievement. (Great Place To Work is an analytics firm that uses employee surveys to build lists of best workplaces, including for Fortune magazine.) When we declared that ambition three years ago, I think there were some people who kind of laughed, but we were just certified last week.

We’ve had six consecutive quarters of positive comps. We have purchased nine new stores this year alone. There are not too many retailers that are buying new stores. We’ve actually opened one of them, which was a new store in Jacksonville.

We’ve evolved on how we engage with our customers with our SEG rewards card, which is our loyalty program. With our mobile apps, we have nearly 2.5 million that have downloaded the app. And the loyalty program and promotions have really exceeded our annual goals.

For this year, more than 80 percent of our customers — actually 85 percent — that we’ve acquired during COVID-19 continue to shop with us, half of which are engaging digitally. So customers with the app tend to spend more with us.

The last point is, more than half of our stores have been remodeled or renewed. And by the end of this year, we’ll have completed 33 renewals and opened nine new stores.

It sounds like your stores have seen what every grocer has during the pandemic: an increase in demand. What else have you learned while operating through COVID-19, and has it affected your growth plans?

We happen to be very good at disaster relief. There have been four Category 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic basin over the past five years. So we have built a very strong muscle when it comes to disaster. The difference between a hurricane and a pandemic is that the hurricane comes and goes. Nobody quite knows when COVID-19 is going.

We define it in four stages: panic, lock down, recovery and the new norm. And we’re certainly in that third phase right now in terms of recovery. But moving forward, our transformation continues right on track, and it’s proven our resiliency. We have a very strong adversity quotient. And we are built to respond in our supply chain and, certainly, it has been bent, but it’s never been broken.

We’ve continued to expand our pickup and our delivery partnerships and on our digital offerings. We’ve certainly seen an increase of that. Food at home, fitness at home, education at home and cleaning are four industries you might not have talked about so much in the past.

Related: Uber now delivers Winn-Dixie and Fresco y Más groceries in Tampa

You mentioned the new stores, but at the same time you’re selling off locations. How does dissolving the BI-LO brand fit into the strategy? What does it mean for your other brands?

Earlier this year, we announced a market shift, and that was the dissolution of the BI-LO banner and emphasis on our core markets. The investments in the remaining footprint have generated significant return.

As far as the core banners moving forward are concerned, we’re obviously very optimistic for the continued strong performance of Winn-Dixie, Fresco y Más and Harvey’s. Winn-Dixie is performing consistently well. It’s the majority of the store fleet. It’s got an increase in the brand preferences. Harvey’s and our Frecso y Más banners have tremendous potential for growth.

When it comes to Winn-Dixie’s brand, are there any plans to change the name because of the word “Dixie?” It was reported earlier this year that it was being considered.

We put an immediate priority on asking our customers, our associates, communities and really actively listening. There are no plans to change the name of this iconic banner. It means so many positive things. We’re very proud of the Winn-Dixie history.

It’s got a tradition of job creation, partnership and nourishing communities that can count on us. Winn-Dixie stands for belonging, inclusion and diversity. And we loudly denounce any injustice and any discrimination in any form whatsoever.

So, what are some changes or new things customers can expect coming from you?

I think probably one of the most exciting things is the eight stores that we purchased from Lucky’s and Earth Fare. They’re all scheduled to open between Q4 this year in Q1 of next year. I think customers are going to enjoy the Winn-Dixie banner they can trust, but it will be a distinct experience.

We’re expanding our WD taproom concept in Gainesville. We’ve got a lot of fresh new features, whether it’s tomato tables or different varieties of peppers, tropical fruits, organics, Florida Keys lobster, Florida stone crabs and local shrimp.

I think that shoppers who haven’t stepped into Winn-Dixie in a long time, or Fresco y Mas — it’s a totally new experience. This is a revamped, revitalized, re-energized company. Seeing is believing each store is different, and it holds its own unique treasures.

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