A&P Sells Both Vineyard Supermarkets in Nine-Store Deal with Stop & Shop
By MANDY LOCKE
After more than eight decades of selling groceries to Vineyarders, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P) will abandon its Island foothold - selling both the Edgartown and Vineyard Haven stores to the Stop & Shop Supermarket Company.
The transaction - together with the sale of four others in the state - is part of a larger move by the A&P to withdraw from all operations in Massachusetts.
Part of the European-based Ahold family of companies, Stop & Shop is a grocery store giant in New England - operating the highest number of stores in the region, including the highly profitable store on Nantucket.
A&P and Stop & Shop officials offered few details about the buyout this week - refusing to disclose individual sale price, change-over timelines or employee job security until the Federal Trade Commission signs off on the purchase.
The 145-year-old grocery store chain shed nine New England stores this week - selling four to Stop & Shop and five to Big Y Foods - for a projected $80 million. A&P will also close its northern New England headquarters in Springfield.
The Edgartown store boasts the highest profit margin of any A&P in the region, and the Vineyard Haven store won a company excellence award last year for selling $238,000 in merchandise during the week of July 4.
Edgartown and Vineyard Haven A&P employees learned of the buyout along with the rest of the world Friday. Managers received an internal electronic mail message from headquarter officials early that morning.
"In the rumor mill that's circulated the last two years, we were assured that Edgartown and Vineyard Haven would be the last two to go. But they were the first two [to be sold]," said assistant Vineyard Haven store manager Jarrett Kennison Wednesday afternoon.
Mr. Kennison, who transferred from another A&P market on Cape Cod four months ago, said employees have been aware of the economic difficulties the country's oldest grocery chain has endured the last few years. The A&P closed its doors in Chatham one year ago and folded operations in Osterville just 10 months ago. This month, stock for the company sold for $5.60 a share - down from $12.49 a share just two years ago. Operating losses for the third quarter of 2002 exceeded a dollar per share.
Inside the A&P earlier this week, it was business as usual. Shelves were stocked. Lines were long. Customers pumped employees for information they didn't have.
Union officials from United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, AFL-CIO out of Rhode Island - who represent about 120 Vineyard A&P workers - visited the Island Wednesday morning to assure non-management employees of their job security, said John Cogill, union steward and meat manager at the Vineyard Haven store. A clause in their contract, Mr. Cogill said, stipulates that if the store is sold to another chain that recognizes unions, the employees will automatically transfer. Mr. Cogill, who has worked as meat manager of the Vineyard Haven store for 14 years, is thankful their union contracts do not expire until 2005.
Managers were not so lucky. They received pink slips with a termination date of April 9 over the weekend.
Three days after the announcement of the buyout, the Stop & Shop logo appeared across the new job application forms.
While Stop & Shop officials declined to confirm a changeover date, employees said they have been told to expect Stop & Shop to take the helm in the middle of April. Some time may be needed, employees said, to clean and remove private label products, but they did not anticipate a lengthy transition.
After receiving assurance of job security, many employees embraced the coming of Stop & Shop.
"I think this will be good for the Island. When you come in at nine o'clock at night, a manager will be here. Not like now. It's not going to be run like a Mom and Pop store," said Mr. Cogill, who's been in the grocery business for 33 years.
Despite the Island's longstanding love-hate relationship with the A&P, the store is an Island relic - its chain status nearly overlooked because of its deep Vineyard roots.
The A&P was a fixture on the Island's main streets during the eras when grocery stores centered in downtown districts.
As early as the 1920s, the A&P sold meat and produce in the basement of what is now Alchemy restaurant, next to the Edgartown courthouse. The Joseph Pine family, owners of the building, lived above the grocery store in a second floor apartment.
The A&P set up camp on Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs through the 1930s in what is now Pomodoro Pizzaria. A black and white mosaic tile bearing the name A&P is still embedded in the front stoop of the restaurant.
The A&P boomed on the Island in 1952 - opening its doors on Water street in Vineyard Haven, a smaller version of its current building. The site endured two additions in the following two decades and a 1983 renovation promised to "take the 1950s look out and bring [the A&P] into the 1980s."
Edgartown residents feared that the Vineyard Haven store opening would close their Main street grocery. But in 1956, the A&P signed a lease with Alfred Hall and moved into what was the First National grocery store on the corner of North Summer and Main streets.
In 1967, in an unprecedented move for the A&P, the grocery chain purchased an Upper Main street property from Preston Averill and constructed a 10,000-square-foot store. In 1989, months after the town lifted the Upper Main street business district building moratorium, A&P owners added 11,000 more square feet to the existing store.
The chain was also involved in an unsuccessful grocery store and bank development proposal in the mid-1980s on State Road in Vineyard Haven, on the site of the former Nobnocket Garage.