Since Food City announced in July it would acquire the Chattanooga area Bi-Lo supermarkets, the Abington, Va.-based grocery chain has rebranded and revamped 29 stores, retrained 2,000 former Bi-Lo workers and hired nearly 500 new workers.
The company is preparing next year to start upgrading the former Bi-Lo stores in St. Elmo and Harrison and begin planning for other store renovations.
On Wednesday, Food City CEO Steve Smith was eager to let all of Chattanooga know about the addition of his family-owned grocery in the market by launching hot air balloon from 22 of the renamed stores across Chattanooga. Smith said the simultaneous hot air balloon launches at most of the new Food City stores "is symbolic of our launch into this market where we have long wanted to have a presence."
Multi-colored balloons filled the sky around many Food City stores Wednesday morning as balloonists from Missouri, Florida, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee came to Chattanooga to mark the official launch of Food City in the market.
Smith climbed into the basket of the hot air balloon piloted by Mark Fritze from Florida at the Hixson store to look over the latest territory added to the the Food City brand. The Chattanooga market and the 29 former Bi-Lo stores bought by Food City marks one of the biggest additions for the grocery chain since Smith's father, Jack Smith, opened his first 8,800-square-foot grocery store in 1955.
Wednesday's balloon launch was similar, though much bigger, than what Food City did in 1990 with nine balloons to market its acquisition of the former White Stores to enter the grocery market in Knoxville a quarter century ago.
"I'm not aware of any balloon launch from this many sites at one time," said Jeff Lansdown, a Dandridge, Tenn., balloonist who helped organize Wednesday's event, billed as "Balloonanooga."
"Chattanooga is a market we have long wanted to be in," said Smith, the CEO of K-Va-T Foods, the parent company of Food City. "It's been a challenge and a lot of hard work so far. But we've had good response from the community and we think the best is yet to come."
Following Bi-Lo's ownership under a Texas private equity group — Lone Star Funds — Smith brags that the Chattanooga grocery stores "are now back under family ownership by a company that is willing to invest in these stores, people and products."
"We think this market has a lot of room for growth," he said.
Jon Springer, retail editor of Supermarket News, said Food City appears to be gearing up as Wal-Mart also expands its grocery presence in the market through the addition of a half dozen grocery-only Neighborhood Markets stores.
"Food City is certainly preparing for a more competitive market in Chattanooga and it looks like they are helping to create a more competitive food market," Springer said. "Food City has plenty of experience competing with Wal-Mart in other markets and it seems like they are putting their best foot forward in Chattanooga. Sprucing up stores and adding staff certainly shows their desire to increase sales."
The additional employees Food City has added allow the grocer to provide more meat and bakery service departments, to stock more items and to put more cashiers in check out lines to help expedite customer service, Smith said.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 423-757-6340.