“Trying to save Earth Fare was like trying to save a melting iceberg,” says Randy Talley with a laugh. “As soon as I’d get my hands around a piece of it, it would melt.”
Talley and Earth Fare founder Roger Derrough opened the Westgate location of the Asheville-based, health-focused grocery store chain in 1994. Together, they then led the early expansion of the business before selling it in 2007 and going on to open four locations of Green Sage Cafe.
When the private equity firm that owned Earth Fare abruptly filed for bankruptcy and closed all 50 of the chain’s stores in 10 states in early February, social media were filled with posts from customers voicing dismay and expressing their love of the stores — particularly the Westgate one. Employees were in shock; Talley says Derrough was particularly devastated.
On June 22, thanks to Talley, Westgate Earth Fare got a second chance. He pushed a deal through for the acquisition of the Earth Fare name and eight stores so far, including Westgate and locations in Boone; Athens, Ga.; Roanoke, Va.; and Columbia, Rock Hill, Charleston and Summerville, S.C.
Part of the drive to save the Westgate store in particular, Talley says, was knowing how its closure would impact the other tenants in the shopping plaza, including one of his Green Sage locations. “Supermarkets are anchor tenants that draw people,” Talley explains. “As soon as I heard the news, I went to work to find investors to buy Earth Fare back. It is a complicated process, and first I looked for Asheville investors to buy this one store and was also looking for large investment groups for the 31 stores that were profitable.”
He says he went to bed the night before bids were due thinking he had failed, but in the morning got a call from Dennis Hulsing, who, among other holdings, owns Crowne Plaza Resort and two Asheville Racquet Club locations. “He heard I was trying to buy Earth Fare and wanted to know more. We got on the phone with the lawyers, and by the end of the day, we had a bid ready for a number of stores. It was a miracle,” he says.
The first step of the miraculous resurrection — Hulsing is the primary but not the sole investor — was the purchase of the Westgate, Roanoke and Athens stores, as well as the Earth Fare name, followed by the other five, with the possibility of more down the road. (Whole Foods snatched up the South Asheville location.)
Westgate was the first to reopen, with new flooring, fresh paint, new aisle signage, less clutter, refreshed fixtures and a renewed commitment to the company’s food philosophy that is particularly apparent, says Talley, in the produce, dairy, meat and seafood departments. The company’s mission of “improving lives by making healthy food available to everyone” is stenciled on the supermarket’s glass entry door. The iconic Earth Fare tomato, designed by Franzi Talley in 1994, remains on the new logo, paired with an updated font.
The extremely popular $5 Monday rotisserie chicken special is back as are the Wednesday sushi special and Friday pizza deal. But most importantly, customers will see lots of familiar faces stocking the shelves, staffing departments, working behind counters and at the registers as employees from both the Westgate and South Asheville stores raced to reapply for jobs, most notably 35-year customer service institution Sherrilynn Clark.
“In all my career, I’ve never seen people with such love and dedication for the place they worked as Earth Fare staff and so excited about coming back,” observes Lynese Cargill, vice president of public relations and human resources for Hulsing Enterprises.
Betsy Bevis was in marketing with Earth Fare for more than two years before it closed and was one of the first in management to be rehired as the new company’s marketing manager. “Just being in the store with old colleagues, seeing the shelves being restocked and being part of this great mission is kind of surreal. We keep pinching ourselves,” she says with a laugh.
Part of the new reality for the revamped Westgate store is adhering to COVID-19 protocols of distancing, sanitizing, clear plastic shields at registers, masking of all staff and masks required of shoppers (with masks available for those who don’t have their own). That, adds Talley, is key to customer care.
“Earth Fare was built with customers for customers,” he says. “They helped move Earth Fare from a little natural foods store to a big supermarket. It was a shared spirit with a great sense of purpose. The last ownership lost that sense of purpose. We are committed to restoring the company to its purpose of making healthy food available to all. And we’re bringing back the suggestion boxes!”