published Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Departure of Food Lions creates anxiety, opportunity

Clyde Whisenant looks through the frozen foods aisle of the Food Lion on Ringgold Road. The Ringgold Food Lion is the only remaining Hamilton County location for the grocery chain.
Clyde Whisenant looks through the frozen foods aisle of the Food Lion on Ringgold Road. The Ringgold Food Lion is the only remaining Hamilton County location for the grocery chain.
Photo by Doug Strickland.
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AREA FOOD LION STORES REMAINING OPEN

Tennessee

125 Stuart Road, Cleveland

4340 Ringgold Road, East Ridge

944 Hillsboro Blvd., Manchester

Georgia

4295 Old Highway 76, Blue Ridge

13311 North Highway 27, Chickamauga

1512 Red Bud Road, Calhoun

130 Fowler St., Ellijay

95 Poplar Springs Road, Ringgold

2709 Chattanooga Road, Rocky Face

Source: Food Lion

Seven of Hamilton County's eight Food Lion stores shut their doors once and for all earlier this month after the grocery giant announced in January that it would largely pull out of the area.

Now the seven sites across the county sit empty, waiting for a new tenant to bring customers to their plazas and food access to area residents.

"It's easiest to put a grocery store where a grocery store has been, and it's easiest to fill a former grocery store with a grocery store," said Benjamin Pitts, an affiliate broker with Herman Waldorf Commercial Inc., which oversees the old Food Lion sites on Wilcox and Rossville Boulevards. "It makes sense for the landlords and it makes sense for the community -- and hopefully it'll make sense for a tenant or two."

Grocery store buildings are specifically designed for grocery stores. Renovating the space to accommodate any other business is an expensive proposition. For example, groceries' heating and air conditioning systems rely on the massive freezers, so any other business moving in would need to replace the air systems.

Just because Food Lion failed in the locations doesn't mean other grocers will write off the sites.

The Food Lion stores that shut down didn't necessarily close because they were losing money, according to Food Lion spokeswoman Christy Phillips-Brown, but because they weren't profitable enough to justify keeping them open.

Mohammed Abuelrub, who represents the owners of the old Food Lion site on Wilcox Boulevard, said if no grocers move into his site, the owners may look into opening a grocery store of their own.

"There is an opportunity there," he said. "It's something the community needs. The whole area, if you look around, there's not any grocery."

Profitable survivors

Hamilton County's only remaining Food Lion sits on the constantly busy Ringgold Road in East Ridge. From Cleveland, Tenn., to Dalton, Ga., only six Food Lions remain open. Those stores met profitability standards, largely because they serve rural areas with fewer competitors.

But the East Ridge Food Lion is an exception to that rule. It's busy location is likely what allowed it to survive the Chattanooga shutdowns, according to East Ridge Mayor Brent Lambert.

"The Food Lion here in East Ridge is located in a great place," he said. "We're pretty well packed-in here, so that Food Lion store being pretty much right in the middle of town really helped them."

Phillips-Brown wouldn't talk about why Food Lion decided to keep the East Ridge store open, but called it a "great performing store."

The store was doing well enough to hire some of the 359 local workers left jobless when other Food Lion stores closed in the Chattanooga area earlier this month. But most of the displaced Food Lion employees were left headed to the state Department of Labor for help with unemployment benefits and hints about finding new jobs.

Jolt to system

The agency deals with a few layoffs the size of a Food Lion each week, department spokesman Jeff Hentschel said.

But he said the nearly 1,000 layoffs announced all at once across Tennessee put a strain on the already slim job pickings for the average grocery store employee.

Those jobs aren't likely to come back any time soon. It can take several months, sometimes several years, to draw a new grocer's interest to an abandoned site, leaving several former Food Lion employees fighting for jobs, Hentschel said.

"When you consider the frontline folks who are bagging and that sort of thing, there's a lot of competition for those jobs," he said. "It's harder than it ever was before to just get work to get by."

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