Friday, May 24, 2024

Earth Fare is in the crosshairs of the grocery wars

By Pam Kelley

[media-credit name=”Judy Owen” align=”alignright” width=”200″]frank-scorpiniti[/media-credit]

When Earth Fare CEO Frank Scorpiniti describes his company’s philosophy, he talks about clean food, compelling value and five-dollar chickens.

And not just any chicken: substantial birds — 5 pounds or more — that are free-range, antibiotic- and hormone-free, non-GMO, vegetarian-fed and cooked in the store. Also, 98-cent baguettes — organic, whole-grain and likely to cost $2.49 or more elsewhere. “I wish I had one baked. I’d let you guys have one,” he says outside Earth Fare’s newest store near Concord Mills shopping mall, about 15 miles north of downtown Charlotte. “It will be in the store every day, just like the chickens will be here every day.”

It’s hard to find a grocery these days that hasn’t dipped into the all-natural market, but natural foods — “clean” food in current parlance — are Earth Fare’s entire reason for being. The privately owned chain began in 1975 as Asheville’s first health-food store, a 1,200-square-foot shop called Dinner for the Earth. New York-based Oak Hill Capital Partners, owned by Texas billionaire Robert Bass, bought 80% of  Earth Fare from another private-equity group for $300 million in 2012. The chain has rapidly grown since; with the Concord store’s June opening, it has 41 locations, including 10 in North Carolina, and plans for many more.

Earth Fare differentiates itself from other natural-food grocers by billing its food as the cleanest on the market, products so healthy that its ads pledge you can “Live Longer with Earth Fare.” The grocer keeps what it calls a “Boot List,” more than 140 ingredients it has booted out of its products, including high-fructose corn syrup, bleached flour, hydrogenated oil, and a slew of chemicals and additives. Whole Foods has a similar list, but if you’re counting, Earth Fare’s is longer. Find a forbidden ingredient in a store product and you’ll get a $50 gift card.

But Earth Fare’s place in the competitive organic grocery business may soon be tested. Amazon recently announced plans to purchase Whole Foods, a move predicted to create grand-scale grocery disruption with new distribution technologies and expanded online shopping, for starters. Some experts say it spells bad news for Whole Foods’ rivals, especially smaller organic grocers such as Earth Fare.

Scorpiniti expresses no alarm. Since taking charge at Earth Fare in late 2014, he has presided over 12 store openings, and 19 more are planned by June 2019. The company doesn’t disclose financial information, though its 2015 revenue was reported at $239 million by trade publication Supermarket News.

Scorpiniti, 47, is a pharmacist by training who previously led a Canadian chain of drugstores. As we talk, an Earth Fare employee sets out a plate of cheeses, including Rocket’s Robiola from North Carolina and Grand Maurice Réserve du Patron, a cheese from Switzerland sold exclusively in the U.S. by Earth Fare. (At $24 and $19.99 per pound respectively, not compelling values but delicious.) “When you’re making decisions for a party, our team will happily unwrap a cheese and cut you a piece,” Scorpiniti says. Yes, online grocery shopping will grow, he says. But some things about the in-store shopping experience you just can’t duplicate digitally. “It’s very hard to taste this fantastic cheese online.”

Photo of Frank Scorpiniti by Judy Owen

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