Meet the Ohio grocer who now owns Tampa Bay’s Save A Lot stores

Fresh Encounters CEO Michael Needler talks grocery trends and his entry in the Tampa market.
Fresh Encounters CEO Michael Needler, Jr. is the new owner of Tampa Bay's 51 Save A Lot stores.
Fresh Encounters CEO Michael Needler, Jr. is the new owner of Tampa Bay's 51 Save A Lot stores. [ Fresh Encounters, Inc. ]
Published Jan. 7, 2021

Tampa Bay’s 51 Save A Lot stores have a new owner, as the discount chain moves to a new wholesale business model. The local stores will remain Save A Lot locations, but were purchased by Fresh Encounters, Inc, an Ohio company that already oversees eight other store brands in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

The Tampa Bay Times caught up with Fresh Encounters CEO Michael Neelder, Jr. about his new investment in the Tampa Bay region and his licensing partnership with Save A Lot.

Related: Save A Lot sells 51 Tampa Bay stores as it pursues wholesale model

Before the Save A Lot purchase, you’d already built up quite the grocery operation. So what has been the greatest lesson you’ve learned operating those stores through the pandemic?

This pandemic, and this year, has brought so many twists and turns. But the biggest lesson, and, I think that the most important takeaway for us, is that our culture has persevered. Our mission has always been to delight our customers, nourish our communities and inspire pride in our team. And our mission has never been clearer. Our culture is founded around being a positive, appreciative and resilient organization. We talked about it for years up until the pandemic, but it really shined a light on how important those key variables are.

Our employees risked their personal lives and health in order to nourish our communities with healthy, wholesome, quality products. So if anything, it just really underscored the importance of having a solid culture.

How do you plan to extend that sense of culture to your new stores that are under the Save A Lot banner?

No matter the banner that you run, it all comes down to the people inside the four walls. I am a hands-on operator, I will have 50 backroom meetings in the Tampa market over the next year to get to know the human beings that are making it happen at the store level.

I call it a listening tour. I want to make sure that they are understood, that they’re heard. I think that that is the first step and a series of steps to establish trust and establish a working environment where people really know that there’s an authentic leader at the helm, who cares about what they have to say and cares about taking care of the communities in a way that large corporations really can’t.

What made you feel that Tampa Bay was the right next to step to expand your company?

One, I think that the demographics and population trends are really solid in this market. I think that the diversity and workforce in this market are so solid that it really fits a hard-discount model. They are really in need of a solid, hard discount, limited assortment, neighborhood grocer.

I was very concerned with Publix and their market dominance. I have the highest level of respect for the Publix organization and their leadership and I think that they are possibly the best retailer in the country. But that said, the Save A Lot model affords us the opportunity to serve a different niche and serve different neighborhoods. So where shopping is a pleasure at Publix, I really am going to aim to make saving a pleasure at Save A Lot.

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Save A Lot launched a new store with an updated floor plan in Tampa in 2019. Are there plans to remodel the rest of the locations?

I bought 51 stores, of which four have been converted to the new model. Over the next two years, I’m going to invest over $5 million with Save A Lot and bring all of the fleet to the rebranded and restored shopping experience.

Related: Why Tampa's new Save A Lot store looks like Aldi

I’ve spent so much time in the market, evaluating some of that model. It’s not going to be cookie cutter in terms of all of the products and assortment. We’re going to absolutely maintain the highest level of fresh food standards that we can and really put an emphasis on meat and produce. That will be consistently executed across the stores.

You have several brands under your umbrella already and a lot on your plate, but do you see yourself growing the Save A Lot stores beyond Tampa?

I’d say I’ve grown quite a bit over the last five years. And my team would probably like me to answer this question with a “we’re going to wait and see kind of response.”

I trust our intuition on this. I believe that the Save A Lot partnership is one that we can be successful with. We can build a sustainable model with a hard-discount grocery operation in more markets than Tampa for sure. But right now, our focus is making sure that we’ve got our arms around the Tampa market.

Not only will I plan on moving my family down here, but we’re going to make sure we have the right support structure in place and really give the stores the attention that they deserve so that we can localize and regionalize the assortment to optimize sales opportunities.

I didn’t realize you were planning to come down here. I’m from Buffalo originally and can tell you, you won’t miss scraping ice off your car windshield.

We have four children from eighth grade down to Pre-K, and they’ve all agreed to doing this. It’s a new adventure for us. I’m certain that I just need to be here to make sure that this investment gets taken care of.

I love being around the teammates in the stores and listening to them, getting direction, guidance, insight from them and the customers. And so I’m going to spend as much time down here in the short term as I can.

My last question for you is really from one grocery nerd to another. With the growth in the grocery industry over the last year, especially with pick-up and delivery, what do you see some of the next trends being in 2021?

E-commerce has taken a huge gain in market share over the last year. But I think that there’s been an underscoring of the importance of the brick-and-mortar experience. And I think people realize that where they shop makes a difference and supporting their local grocer is something that, perhaps, they took for granted in the past.

So I think if you see anything, you’re going to see a stronger, more robust, independent retailer, as opposed to the trend that we had seen so pervasively over the last decade, which was the exit of the independent, as big box stores and major national players stole share and used their scale to the disadvantage of the independent.