Pat Burns got his start in the grocery business at the age of 14 as a bagger for a Philadelphia-area supermarket. Later, Burns opened restaurants and catering operations throughout Philadelphia before starting The Fresh Grocer in 1996. Burns says the close ties he and the rest of the chain’s management have kept with Philadelphia have given the company a strong advantage in a tough market.

“I think the Philadelphia region has some of the fiercest competition in the country,” Burns says. “You really have to be on top of your game.”

The Fresh Grocer owns and operates seven grocery stores in and around Philadelphia, and Burns says the connection it has with the community makes a big difference to customers. “We feel a great pride in our mission to be community-minded,” he says. “We really try to take an interest to get to know the customers on a first-name basis.”

The company’s local connection isn’t its only advantage, however. Burns says The Fresh Grocer has become an institution in Philadelphia thanks to its commitment to quality, its push for greater efficiency and a willingness to try new things. As it prepares to open its newest location in New Brunswick, N.J., The Fresh Grocer is demonstrating that there is still a place for the locally owned independent in the grocery world.

Freshest Products

Burns says The Fresh Grocer strives to live up to its name. The company believes having the freshest food available is the key to success in the industry, and so far it has been proven right. Whether shoppers are looking for produce, baked goods, deli products or meat and seafood, Burns says The Fresh Grocer operates by a simple mantra.

“Don’t ever have too much inventory, make it fresh as you can get and don’t try to make too much of one item for too many days,” Burns says, adding that everything made in The Fresh Grocer’s stores is made fresh every single day. “A lot of people don’t do that.”

With the economy still in recovery mode, Burns says The Fresh Grocer has seen more shoppers purchasing private-label products. In response, the company has worked to ensure these products are the best possible values for its customers. “We’ve really taken the effort to advertise our private-label line and bring the price down so the price difference between private label versus national brand is tremendous,” Burns says.

Increased Efficiency

Increasing value for customers is a substantial goal for The Fresh Grocer, and it’s one that Burns says the company has been hard-pressed to achieve in the face of rising energy and healthcare costs. In response, The Fresh Grocer has stepped up its efforts to become more efficient and lean to keep prices down.

For example, Burns points to the company’s efforts to make its stores greener. By recycling more materials and even composting some waste, The Fresh Grocer saves money that would have gone to traditional waste disposal services.

Burns says the company is also in the process of switching to more energy-efficient LED lighting in all of its stores, and is utilizing automated control systems to adjust lighting and HVAC usage automatically. “We’re really trying to shave our energy costs that way,” Burns says.

Urban Expansion

The Fresh Grocer has been a fixture in Philadelphia for years, but Burns says the company is excited to move into new markets, as well. The company’s newest store in New Brunswick, to open later this year, will be unlike anything the company has done before. “That store’s going to be off the charts,” he says. “It’s going to be a very unique, urban transit-oriented experience.”

The 49,000-square-foot store will be located in the New Brunswick Wellness Plaza, which will also feature a brand new RWJ Fitness & Wellness Center. The Fresh Grocer’s new location will be split into two levels, with a café and smoothie bar on the second level, connected to the fitness center.

The entire facility also is connected to a transit station, so customers will be able to park, get in their morning workout before taking the train into New York City, then get their shopping done on their way home at night.

“New Brunswick is a thriving, up-and-coming city in New Jersey,” Burns says. “We’re really excited about it, and we believe there are other opportunities.” Burns adds that the company is looking into adding another store in Camden, N.J., in the near future.

“We like the urban markets a lot; that’s where our brand is recognized really well,” Burns adds.

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