In a curious case of deja vu, Tops plans to buy back our area's Grand Union supermarkets in Saranac Lake, AuSable Forks and Elizabethtown - stores it owned from 2001 to 2005. We want to take this opportunity to welcome them back to the Adirondacks.
This is part of a planned purchase of 21 small-town supermarkets in northern New York and Vermont from C&S, the grocery wholesaler Tops sold its local stores to seven years ago. They had been Grand Unions for decades before 2001, then they were Tops for four years, and then C&S brought back the Grand Union name it had acquired from the old chain's bankruptcy. But even though Tops is buying them back, it plans to keep them under the GU name.
Strange, huh? Not in a bad way, though.
The Grand Union supermarket at 156 Church St., Saranac Lake, seen Friday, is one of two in the village.
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
Tops executives say they intend to do the same thing C&S did, which was to keep these groceries going with few changes. These communities are fortunate to have these stores; think of Indian Lake, an Adirondack town of 1,350 people where the only supermarket shut down almost three years ago.
We look forward to the change in ownership. As the companies admit, C&S is a wholesaler, not a retailer. It isn't very good at reaching out to customers, engaging communities and doing the things that build loyalty. Instead, it has quietly maintained the status quo, which can look weak in the light of nearby supermarkets that are going out of their way to attract shoppers.
Consistency is good, but it's better for local residents if a company builds on a consistent foundation and reaches out to serve local needs that aren't being met. C&S will still be these GU stores' distributer, as it has been for a long time, so that part will be as solid as ever. But we hope Tops will do some things that were not part of C&S's playbook but which can improve the local quality of life.
Of the 20 communities involved here, Saranac Lake is a special case. First, it's the only one with two GU stores. Also, its grocery market has gotten much more competitive in the seven years since Tops left: An Aldi opened across Lake Flower Avenue from one of the GUs; farmers markets have sprung up in Saranac Lake, Lake Placid and Paul Smiths; and a Hannaford opened in Lake Placid, giving Saranac Lakers a second 40,000-square-foot supermarket (along with Price Chopper) 8 miles away.
Nevertheless, Tops President and CEO Frank Curci says the Saranac Lake market is still strong enough to support both stores, so that's one less thing for locals to worry about.
We are also very glad Mr. Curci pointed out that the GU on Church Street, Saranac Lake, is in need of upgrading. As locals know, that store is too small and looks dingy from the outside. To visitors coming in from the northeast on state Route 3, the village looks attractive until you get to that point. Perhaps worst of all, the village's beautiful River Walk ends there at, of all things, a dumpster.
When Tops owned this property the last time, there was hope it would buy up some neighboring property parcels, tear down the old store and build a nice new one, making better use of its scenic setting on the Saranac River. We and many others would love to see something like that happen now. Tops could even create some new revenue potential by making the new building multi-story and renting out the upstairs as apartments and offices.
We don't want to tell a business what to do, but based on our years of experience and observation, we want to highlight one thing: The Church Street location is, for whatever reason, a magnet. As small and scruffy as that store is, people go there. Partly it's because Saranac Lake is a walkable community, and this downtown store is easily accessible by foot or bike from most of the village. It's also at a busy central intersection, it's across from a Rite Aid and near a Stewart's, and now that part of town's prospects are rising with the addition of the Adirondack Carousel and the Elks Lodge.
Even many local residents who refuse to go to that GU, citing its relatively few offerings and its unappealing appearance, talk about it. They tell us they drive by and grumble something to the effect of, "I wish this store was better so I wouldn't have to waste gas and time going elsewhere."
So Tops, whatever you do with the other 20 stores you plan to buy, do something nice with that one on Church Street. It's tricky and expensive, we know, and the business is solid there as is, but that location is good enough to gain a lot more of the local market - especially if you build local loyalty by turning an eyesore into a beautiful local attraction.
It may not be possible, but if so, it would make a big difference for the community.