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White's to remain full-service supermarket

Jeff Keeling • Jan 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM

The new owner of White’s Fresh Foods plans to continue operating the stores as full-service supermarkets rather than converting them to the discount grocery Save-A-Lot stores, a company spokesman said Tuesday.

“The expectation is to keep them as conventional retail grocery stores,” Alan Larsen of Houchens Industries said, adding that the sale of the White’s assets should become final in four or five weeks.

Meanwhile, Larsen said, the pending ownership change was already affecting the 14 White’s stores, 450-odd employees and many customers.

“We put a tremendous amount of inventory in the stores yesterday, and we’ve got many trucks on the road today,” Larsen said. “We’re looking forward to servicing those customers who have been so loyal to White’s.”

That was good news to Brenda Hensdill and her husband, Leroy Sheppard, who have shopped for years at the White’s at 1103 N. Roan St. in Johnson City. They had become a little concerned in recent weeks as the store’s inventory had become thin.

“I’ve been shopping there since the 1970s,” Hensdill said Tuesday. “It’ll be much better than to close it down. That’s the only place we ever shop.”

Houchens, of Bowling Green, Ky., is an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) company and the world’s largest 100 percent employee-owned company, Larsen said. Among companies with at least 50 percent ESOP ownership, the National Center for Employee Ownership listed Houchens as 10th largest as of last June. Four of the top 10 were supermarket companies.

Houchens said similarities existed between Houchens’ grocery operations (it operates close to 200 supermarkets as well as 225 Save-A-Lot discount grocers) and those of White’s. He said that played into the purchase.

“It’s family-owned, and now it’s going to be employee-held,” Larsen said. “It’s not like a huge conglomeration.”

He said Houchens has been on a growth curve when it comes to acquiring supermarket chains. It bought Food Giant six years ago and most recently purchased the 22 stores owned by Baylors’ Foods in southern Indiana and Illinois.

“When Houchens Industries acquires companies, as a rule the very first thing we consider is the history of the organization. With White’s longstanding history of serving consumers and being socially responsible as well ... it’s a good fit for our company.”

Larsen called the White family’s work with Houchens “outstandingly helpful.”

“They were so focused on being sure their employees were cared for, and I think it’s a real testament to the organization to look over the horizon and make sure this is good for the company and the employees.”

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