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SPECIALTY CHAIN FOCUSES ON HEALTHY EATING

Fresh Thyme store offers to spice up market

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    Workers stock produce and put up pricing signs at Fresh Thyme Farmers Market. The store officially opens today.

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    Fresh Thyme Farmers Market takes over the 30,000 square-foot space once occupied by Office Depot on Monroe Street.

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    Sausages are made in-house and fresh juice is squeezed and bottled daily at the market based in suburban Chicago.

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    Bernier

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Beginning at 7 a.m. today, the Toledo area will have another player vying for a slice of the grocery market financial pie.

Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, a suburban Chicago-based specialty supermarket chain that focuses on healthy produce, meats, and other items at affordable prices, premieres officially on Monroe Street in Sylvania Township with the aim of becoming more than a niche player.

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Fresh Thyme Farmers Market takes over the 30,000 square-foot space once occupied by Office Depot on Monroe Street.

THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON
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“I think we can definitely become a destination store for a lot of people,” said Dustin Drouillard, a former Toledoan who returned to his hometown to manage Fresh Thyme’s first northwest Ohio store.

PHOTO GALLERY: Fresh Thyme Market opening

Fresh Thyme, at 5105 Monroe St. in a 30,000-square foot former Office Depot store, hopes to compete with the area’s other specialty grocery stores, including The Andersons, Fresh Market, and 365 by Whole Foods, which is under construction and set to open this year.

“I’d say we’re somewhere in the middle between Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s” in terms of product offerings, said Dave Bernier, vice president of store operations for Fresh Thyme, which is based in Downer’s Grove, Ill. But the retailer contends that it separates from competitors on prices, he added.

“I think we’re kind of a value proposition for a customer, really good products at a good value,” Mr. Bernier said.

Fresh Thyme began just four years ago through a merger of Sunflower Farmers Market and Sprouts Farmers Market, two chains in the southwest United States. But it has grown at an accelerated pace. The Toledo store is its 39th and ninth in Ohio. Two more Ohio stores will open this summer, and the chain will have 48 by year’s end. A year ago it had just 22 stores.

Fresh Thyme’s long range goal is 150 stores in five years. Meijer Inc. is a major financial investor in the chain.

David Livingston, a grocery industry analyst in Milwaukee, said he thinks fast growth could be hurting Fresh Thyme.

“The thing with Fresh Thyme is, so far, their performance has just been average at best. They plan to build more stores, but they haven’t got all the kinks out of their concept yet,” he said.

Mr. Livingston said Fresh Thyme should first concentrate on raising profit margins rather then focusing on growth. Based on his research, Mr. Livingston estimates the chain’s average weekly sales are about $250,000, or $8.93 a square foot. By comparison, the Fresh Market does $9.29 a square foot, Whole Foods $17.56, and Trader Joe’s a whopping $41.67.

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Sausages are made in-house and fresh juice is squeezed and bottled daily at the market based in suburban Chicago.

THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON
Enlarge | Buy This Image

Fresh Thyme stores “are big in the natural organic segments. They’ll compete with a Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, The Andersons, and the Fresh Market,” he said. But the concept “needs to find a way to get the margins up,” he added.

At the forefront of Fresh Thyme’s business concept is produce. Its stores have large selections of both organic and conventionally grown produce, opting for locally grown products when available. It has separate sections for organics from nonorganics, and items throughout the store that are organic have green labels, and nonorganics have yellow labels.

About 25 percent of a typical Fresh Thyme market’s sales come from produce, Mr. Bernier said.

Fresh Thyme tries to differentiate itself from competitors by playing up the healthy angle. The store has its own juicing department where it squeezes and bottles daily a large variety of fresh juices. It also has a large assortment of vitamins and other health supplements.

It also has a large bulk-food section, a deli section with salad and olive bars, and a meat section with prepared meats, including 30 types of sausages. But the market also carries traditional staples, frozen foods, craft beers and wine, and dairy.

Overall, Mr. Bernier said, the market has about 4,000 different items, with 200 of them organic products and 1,400 of them gluten-free.

The store had a ribbon-cutting and soft opening for employees family and friends Tuesday. Mr. Bernier said he hopes it will remain a busy location, and the Monroe Street site was chosen specifically for the high volume of traffic passing by.

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.

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