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Published: Thursday, 11/30/2000

Tough market for markets

Following closely the acquisition of Seaway FoodTown's Maumee-based chain of grocery and drugstores by a Michigan concern, a fixture of the Toledo grocery business, Churchill's Super Markets, Inc., will be sold - except for one store - to the Farmer Jack supermarket chain.

Perhaps it was inevitable, but it hurts nonetheless.

The long-time chairman of the concern was Gen. Walter A. Churchill, a great man and a great American, who died in 1998, leaving the company with what officials described as a substantial tax burden. General Churchill was the archetypal hometown businessman, a familiar figure to many shoppers who saw him as a shirt-sleeves executive who took an active interest in everything that went on in his stores. He greeted customers personally as he patrolled the aisles, acting as a kind of one-man quality-control squad.

A Churchill's company spokesman said that one reason the family became interested in Farmer Jack's offer was the promise by the Detroit-based chain to retain current employees. That kind of loyalty to workers is pretty rare in this dog-eat-dog competitive environment, and we hold Farmer Jack's to its word.

The remaining store, the oldest and smallest in the Churchill empire, at West Central Avenue and Cheltenham Road, might be redesigned as a niche market selling gourmet foods. That would be good news for the Westgate shopping area, which has seen a number of smaller family enterprises fall victim to chain competition. The store is convenient to homeowners in Old Orchard and Ottawa Hills, who might welcome a quality store in a business that now constantly seems to favor ever larger grocery emporiums and super stores.

General Churchill, whose home was adjacent to the original store, remained active in civic affairs for many years, including the effort to preserve the Fallen Timbers battlefield site. He loved military history and he fretted that a shopping mall proposed for a site adjacent to the battlefield would only make it that much harder for smaller retailers to survive in the Toledo market.

One cannot fault the Churchill family for making its decision to sell. It is encouraging, though, that the arrangement will not work economic hardship on store employees and that the Churchill name will continue to be a valued part of the Toledo retail scene.



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