Stores aim to serve areas rebounding after Katrina
Sunday, October 23, 2005
By Ronette King
If you didn't know better, the Winn-Dixie store on
Veterans Memorial Boulevard seems ordinary. There's fall
foliage in the floral department, piles of Granny Smith
apples in the produce coolers and a table piled high with
But if you look again, you'll see these are not ordinary
times. There's a curiously high number of men in workboots
loading up on bottled water in the early morning. There's a
10-foot-high pile of rubbish at the end of West End
Boulevard as homeowners return to clear their flood-ravaged
Lakeview homes. And there's often a line of shoppers at
This Winn-Dixie, like most other supermarkets that have
reopened in the nearly eight weeks following Hurricane
Katrina, is seeing increased sales as residents return to
pick up the pieces of their lives but find fewer shopping
Grocery stores are perhaps the most crucial businesses to
the return to a rebuilding city. No matter what else has
gone wrong, people have to eat. In fact, when a grocery
store reopens, it means the neighborhood is more or less
back in business.
That's how Peter Lynch sees it, and as chief executive of
Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla., he's
overseeing the comeback of his stores in this area -- as are
most of his counterparts in the local grocery industry.
"We want to be there when people come back," he said
during a tour last week of the Veterans store.
But the comeback hasn't been, and won't be, simple.
Much of the area's grocery inventory was damaged in the
hurricane by wind and in the aftermath by flooding and
looting. Some operators are taking advantage of the
storm-induced closures to refurbish stores or implement
companywide plans to revamp their chains.
Like other retailers, supermarkets are facing tight labor
markets as their employees don't have homes to live in and
government-supplied trailers have been slow to arrive.
Also, many workers apparently have opted not to return to
their jobs bagging groceries and stocking shelves. Local Sav-A-Center
stores are working with just a third of their usual staff.
Breaux Mart stores are closing a couple of hours early
because they're operating with half the usual staff.
Winn-Dixie says about a thousand workers have indicated they
won't or can't return.
Big chains and independent grocers alike are recruiting
staff for stores already open and others yet to be rebuilt.
Rouses Supermarkets is busing employees from Terrebonne and
Lafourche to the Metairie and Covington stores. And Rouses
is offering existing employees a nearly $2,000 bonus if they
bring in three people to work for the company and they stay
for 90 days.
Also, with increased gasoline costs and upward pressure
on wages -- fast-food stores are paying much more --
grocers' costs are rising, said Glenn Dickson, vice
president of operations for the Sav-A-Center division of the
Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co.
Of course, the first step for a grocery to make a
comeback is to repair the stores themselves. That alone
often is a mountain of a task.
Barry Breaux has three of his four local Breaux Mart
stores back in operation, starting the week of the storm.
Breaux hasn't decided what he'll do with the Algiers store,
which was looted pretty badly, with cash registers, cameras
and other parts of the infrastructure damaged, he said.
After Hurricanes Rita and Katrina passed through, 13 of
the 15 Rouses stores were shut. As of last week, just one
remained closed. At that store, located on Veterans near
David Drive, part of the roof came off and it suffered some
structural damage, said President Donald Rouse. The company
is looking for a possible new location for that store.
The second store on Veterans near Transcontinental Drive
had about 8 inches of water. But heavy looting caused more
damage than the hurricane, Rouse said. Workers pulled
everything out of the store, replaced products and
A new location under construction in Mandeville had minor
wind damage and opening date has been pushed back to
December. The Covington store reopened a few days after the
storm, working on generator power.
That store is doing well as are stores in Houma,
Thibodaux and Morgan City as people from the New Orleans,
Jefferson and St. Bernard area have settled there.
Rouse is looking to expand in those areas that are
experiencing growth, some spurred by hurricane relocation.
The company has acquired the former Schwegmann site on Gause
Boulevard in Slidell and plans to build a store on a
six-acre parcel. The company is seeking city permits for
All of the Robert Fresh Market stores remain closed for
now. The first to come back will be the store at West
Esplanade Avenue and Transcontinental, which is set to open
in a week to 10 days, said Chief Financial Officer Rick
Fernandez. That store suffered a lot of wind damage and the
floor had to be replaced.
Two weeks ago, demolition began at the Robert E. Lee
store in Lakeview, which had 8 feet of water inside. That
job will take six to 10 months, Fernandez said. Work
recently began at the Robert store located at Canal Street
and Carrollton and is expected to take six months to a year
as well to repair damage caused by 4 feet of water there.
The chain is eager to get the St. Claude Avenue store
open. That store escaped with just about 18 inches of water.
The residents of the nearby French Quarter, Marigny and
Bywater neighborhoods are returning quickly. The fix-up job
in that store could be six months to a year, Fernandez said.
The store on Annunciation will remain closed for now but
Fernandez held out the possibility that the company will
reopen down the road. That store, close to the Ernest N.
Morial Convention Center, was completely looted, Fernandez
Winn-Dixie now has 28 stores open and 15 closed
throughout southeastern Louisiana. Of those closed, 10 are
in the metro area. Lynch visited the closed New Orleans-area
stores last week to get a first-hand look at the damage.
Those stores had anywhere from 4 to 10 feet of water and
will have to be stripped down to the studs. Whether those
stores will reopen depends on what the government's plans
are for the area.
Sav-A-Center has 20 of its 28 stores open. In November,
the store on Franklin Avenue is slated to reopen. That store
suffered some wind damage but didn't' flood, Dickson said.
The Carrollton Avenue and Airline Highway Sav-A-Center
stores, both of which took on about 18 inches of water, are
set to reopen in early December. Workers already are pulling
out flooring, dry wall and ceilings as part of the
remodeling there. The company will spend about $5 million on
those two stores to convert them to the Fresh Market format
implemented at the Veterans store, Dickson said.
Of the remaining five stores that are shut down, the
Bullard store was hit hardest, taking in 6 to 7 feet of
water. Likewise for the Chalmette and Mereaux stores, and
two locations on the Mississippi Gulf Coast were severely
damaged. Sav-A-Center will review the situation in six
months, he said. "We will see how the economy recovers."
New Orleans already was a highly competitive grocery
market and it likely will remain so, said Mark Hamstra of
Supermarket News, an industry publication.
But if there are fewer people in some areas, fewer
grocery stores will be needed, several grocers said. But
there's also going to be a lot of money pouring in to
rebuild the community and those stores that remain want to
get some of it.
"If people are there," said Winn-Dixie's Lynch, "we're
going to be there, selling to them."
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Ronette King can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3308.