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Schnucks to test natural foods market. Store in Columbia, Mo., will open this summer

Schnucks to test natural foods market. Store in Columbia, Mo., will open this summer

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EatWell

A rendering of EatWell, A Natural Food Store by Schnucks, planned for a summer opening in Columbia, Mo. It will focus on health and wellness, as well as natural foods. 

Schnuck Markets Inc. is jumping further into the growing natural- and organic-foods realm, looking to compete more directly with grocers such as Fresh Thyme and Whole Foods.

Its first store, a 42,000-square-foot stand-alone market called EatWell, A Natural Food Store by Schnucks, is slated to open this summer in Columbia, Missouri, in a building formerly owned by the bankrupt Lucky’s Market chain.

“It’s a growing segment, and we could stand by and watch, or we could get involved and learn and see what we can do to address that growing demand,” Todd Schnuck, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer, told the Post-Dispatch.

Once a niche market at specialty stores, organic foods have for years been available at many traditional grocers, including Schnucks. But Schnuck said that if the grocer was really going to become “good and knowledgeable” in that area, the best way to do it was to open a store in that format.

The move comes as grocery stores catering to customers seeking organic and other healthy options have popped up in the St. Louis area — and Schnuck sees the EatWell concept as a way to draw in those shoppers.

Fresh Thyme opened its first St. Louis area store in Fairview Heights in 2014 and is planning its seventh local store at City Foundry STL, a mixed-use development under way on the site of the former Century Electric Foundry complex in Midtown.

Whole Foods added its third location here in 2016, when the store in the Central West End opened in addition to stores in Brentwood and Town and Country.

Lucky’s, which also focused on organic foods, did not fare as well, here or nationally. It shuttered a location in Ellisville in 2017 and its Rock Hill store closed earlier this year.

Supermarket News reported that as part of a court-supervised auction, Lucky’s sold 23 stores and its distribution center for about $29 million to 10 winning bidders, and that Schnucks in March purchased the Columbia property for $860,000.

Schnucks considered making a more incremental entry into the market, Schnuck said.

But when the Columbia property became available, it spurred the company to take a look at creating a standalone store instead.

“A number of people internally said it could be a mini-Schnucks,” he said. “I said, not so fast. We’re going to use this as a learning opportunity. It could be a potential growth vehicle for us in the future.”

The decision came through talks with his grown children about their family meals and how they look at health and well-being, as well as listening to what customers want.

The new store’s offerings will focus on organic and local foods, including a natural-living department in which employees “can assist customers with choosing options that fit a healthy, balanced lifestyle,” the company said in a statement.

The store’s location, at{span id=”docs-internal-guid-fcb0ed5a-7fff-a783-7038-ad657ba77f61”} 111 South Providence Road, near the Mizzou campus, was appealing, Schnuck said. It will employ about 80 people, most of whom already have been hired from Lucky’s. The store’s layout will seem familiar to Lucky’s customers, Schnuck said.

EatWell will be the second Schnucks-owned store in Columbia. The other is a Schnucks at 1400 Forum Boulevard, where 110 people work.

“It’s important that we try to take that big step and go ahead and operate a store that we think makes sense in and of itself,” Schnuck said.

But he still sees opportunities for taking what they learn and expanding offerings into their other stores.

Jason Long, founder of consulting firm Eye on Retail in St. Louis, said a focus on natural and organic foods could play well in the chain’s higher-end stores, such as the Schnucks in Des Peres.

“The trends are there. Regardless of what stores are going bankrupt, that’s a growing market. That’s not going away,” he said.

He also noted the relative lack of competition in Columbia, which has neither a Whole Foods nor a Fresh Thyme, makes it a good place to test the new store.

Schnucks’ expansion into the market could manifest as more natural-foods offerings in existing stores, new departments within stores, or more standalone stores, Schnuck said.

“We’re not necessarily in a rush to tie down another location,” he said, “until we’ve had a chance to let our experiment run its course.”

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