MOUNT PROSPECT, ILL. — CROWDED with shoppers checking out the new kid in town, the first location for Phoenix-based Fresh Thyme Farmers Market is bringing a familiar format to a new market.
I stopped in for a first look at the retailer, founded by a team including former Sunflower Farmers Market chief executive Chris Sherrell, a week after its grand opening. The layout is what I expected: produce in the back center behind an impressive bulk foods section, flanked by meat and refrigerated/frozen foods.
I know this layout because I shop it at Sprouts Farmers Market weekly and used to shop it at Sunflower Farmers Markets in Austin, Texas. I visited it at Henry’s in Carlsbad, Calif., when I met with Andrew McGregor, our 2009 Produce Retailer of the Year.
It’s a successful strategy, and other retailers are taking notice. In a recent Wells Fargo study of markets where The Kroger Co., Cincinnati, and Phoenix-based Sprouts compete, Sprouts was the No. 2 produce destination. Sprouts, through the Sunflower and Henry’s acquisitions and through organic growth, now has more than 170 stores in the Southwest and is expanding into the Midwest, having opened stores in Oklahoma and Kansas in the past year.
Fresh Thyme has plans for rapid expansion as well. The company said it plans to have 60 stores by 2019, starting in Chicagoland and expanding into Indiana and through the Midwest.
Most of the produce guys I encountered at the store were from Phoenix or the Southwest — all former Sprouts or Sunflower personnel.
Aisles were busy for a pre-lunch crowd, and I was stopped by more than one shopper as I filmed video coverage for our online publications. One told me she was glad for this store in her neighborhood because it saves her a trip to Whole Foods. Another said she was glad to see the shuttered Sports Authority location reopen so soon.
Several people commented on the prices, particularly in produce. Fresh Thyme had some impressive ads, with avocados 4/$1, strawberries for 99 cents for a 1-pound clamshell and mangoes for 3/$1.
Competition in the area included Costco, Aldi, Jewel-Osco, Trader Joe’s and a Mariano’s Fresh Market, the upscale banner from Milwaukee-based Roundy’s Inc. Roundy’s has been ramping up openings of this banner over the past year, opening five in the first quarter of 2014 for a total of 21 in the area.
Fresh Thyme plans to open its second location in the nearby suburb of Deerfield June 25.