Wine, Beer, Barbecue and ‘Sally the Robot’: Acme Readies New Grocery Store in University City

A flurry of activity was underway this week in preparation for the opening of a new Acme at 40th and Walnut streets in the University City neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Three years ago, Acme Markets signed a long-term lease with the University of Pennsylvania on 34,500 square feet that had once been occupied by Fresh Grocer, a brand operated by ShopRite, which is a division of Wakefern Food Corp.

Acme has spent several million dollars — the company declined to be more specific — to prepare the space at 4001 Walnut St. for shoppers amid a pandemic and changing consumer buying habits. The store reflects both of those situations as well as the neighborhood in which it is located. It officially opens Oct. 23.

The space that serves as the actual store is about 20,000 square feet, which is much smaller than a typical Acme that comes in at between 45,000 to 50,000 square feet. About 200 employees, most part-time, will work at the University City location.

The new location gives Acme an opportunity to pilot an expanded prepared foods and deli area that will include new items to the grocery chain including five varieties of poke bowls, sushi party platters, barbecue dishes such as brisket and pulled pork, focaccia pizza, and hoagies.

“We try to meet every single customer and really take care of the community,” said Angie Marshall, deli sales manager. In University City, that means providing items that appeal to students as well as families.

Because of the coronavirus, grocery stores such as Acme have eliminated self-serve buffet stations and are finding alternative ways to provide customers with prepared foods that are packaged or served by an employee. When it comes to salads, Acme is testing out what is being called “Sally the Robot.”

“It is a solution to the salad bar that no one wants to do because of Covid,” said Jim Perkins, Mid-Atlantic division president of Albertsons Cos., which owns Acme, and executive vice president of retail operations.

The devices contain 21 different items including romaine lettuce, spinach, quinoa red peppers and three different types of dressing that a person can select to make a salad.

Based on some of its research of what sold at the Fresh Grocer, Acme knew better than to put in a large display of ready-made cakes – though it will make them for customers. It also knew to bulk up on the deli, grab-and-go food items, snacks, produce and dairy but back off on meat and cooking ingredients. It added a floral department.

Acme bought a liquor license for the store and will sell beer and wine, though, as Perkins points out, that doesn’t compensate for softening sales of sodas and other sugary drinks as a result of the Philadelphia soda tax. A Starbucks kiosk will also operate from the new store.

Acme routinely looks for opportunities to open new stores, though it has also been closing locations throughout the region. If the company closes a store, then it wasn’t making money, Perkins said. “It’s all a financial equation,” he said.

The company has been renovating the stores it is retaining and will spend $20 million this year on remodeling locations. It so far has finished renovating 164 stories and, after this year, will have fewer than 50 to tackle.

One of those locations that will get an overhaul is at 5th and Pine streets in the Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. It is the chain’s smallest location at about 7,000 square feet of store space. Acme will address that location next year with a total interior renovation that will require it to close for nine to 10 weeks. It will get a new layout as well as a liquor license that will enable it to sell beer and wine.

“That will be extremely fast,” Perkins said. “Closing it is the safest and easiest way to do it.”

While shelves were being stocked at the new University City location this week, there were signs that the pandemic is still affecting the availability of some products such as household cleaners and some frozen food items. Spaces where those products would otherwise go were empty, waiting until they become available again. “There are still about 500 items you can’t get,” Perkins said.

*Articles Courtesy of Philadelphia Business Journals

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