southtownstar
COMFY 
Weather Updates

A new grocery store promises the cheapest produce around

The interior new Fresh Thyme Farmers Market opening April 23 Mount Prospect. The company plans open Deerfield store this summer

The interior of the new Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, opening April 23 in Mount Prospect. The company plans to open a Deerfield store this summer and locations in Downers Grove, Naperville and Joliet next year.

storyidforme: 65339651
tmspicid: 23369672
fileheaderid: 11405744

Updated: April 22, 2014 6:28PM



Chris Sherrell is promising the cheapest produce in town.

That’s a tall order in the Chicago area, where the $17 billion grocery industry is crowded and the margins are razor-thin. Produce often is marked up higher than other goods because it needs a lot of handling and space, and it spoils fast.

But Sherrell says his new grocery chain, Fresh Thyme Farmers Markets, will be different — though he’s counting on up to 25 percent of sales from fresh produce.

“We are going to bring the natural and organic shopping experience to the masses,” Sherrell said. “We want that everyday shopper who can’t afford to go to your more traditional natural food stores.”

Sherrell is opening his first Fresh Thyme on Wednesday at 211 W. Rand Road in Mount Prospect, with a Deerfield store set to open this summer and locations in Downers Grove, Naperville and Joliet mapped out for next year.

“The Midwest is missing the natural segment,” he said. “This concept isn’t anywhere but in the Southwest.”

The concept, Sherrell says, combines the spirit of an an outdoor farmers market with the convenience of a neighborhood store. It emphasizes organic produce and other products from local farms and suppliers — “local” being the hottest trend in the supermarket business.

“The intense produce section is sort of their mantra,” said Dan Tausk, vice president and principal at Oak Brook-based retail broker Mid-America Real Estate Group. “But what really sets them apart is size.”

Each Fresh Thyme store will be about 28,000 square feet — much smaller than most Chicago-area groceries, which average 50,152 square feet, according to Tausk’s “Urban Grocery Study.”

For comparison, the Meijer superstore that’s set to open this summer in Homer Glen will be 200,000 square feet. Michigan-based Meijer is an investor in Fresh Thyme.

And there is room for smaller stores like Fresh Thyme to compete, says Jon Hauptman, partner at Barrington-based retail research firm Willard Bishop.

“Chicago is one of those marketplaces with not only a significant population, so it’s attractive, but also you haven’t had national change come in here, so it’s a little more open to smaller or even new companies that are looking to grow,” he said.

With Sherrell’s background in the organic grocery world, Hauptman thinks Fresh Thyme has a better shot than most. “They are the folks who developed and grew Sprouts [Farmers Market] out West,” Hauptman said. “They’ve played in this arena before, focusing on natural and organics. If anybody is going to have success in doing this, they certainly would.”

After working at Wild Oats in the early ’90s, Sherrell moved to Phoenix-based Sunflower Farmers Market in 2003 and became CEO of the 38-store natural grocery chain in 2012. Sunflower merged with Sprouts Farmers Market that year, and Sherrell left soon after.

Sherrell is moving his team, and Fresh Thyme’s headquarters, from Arizona to Downers Grove by the end of 2015 as part of a plan to open 60 stores in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri and Minnesota over the next five years.

The small stores and fresh produce approach would seem ripe for Chicago proper, though none of the Fresh Thyme stores are slated for the city — yet.

“We have two multifunction spaces under lease right now in the city, but those projects take years before you gain traction,” Sherrell said.

There, Fresh Thyme would find more consumers, but more competition from local grocers and seasonal farmers markets.

“In the city there are a lot of independents that aspire to this ‘produce stand’ or ‘farmers market stand,’ as well,” Hauptman said.

But, he said, as a new company, Fresh Thyme can start, well, fresh.

“They can build their stores and departments to be the right size to drive the strongest possible return on investment,” Hauptman said. “And groceries in general, and produce specifically, is a critical mass business, meaning that while the profit per item is not high, they can do very well if they attract shoppers and sell tonnage.”



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.