Missoula Fresh Market

New signs greet customers at the Missoula Fresh Market on South Reserve Street, which replaced Safeway. 

DAVID ERICKSON, Missoulian

With two furious overnight sessions on Monday and Wednesday by nearly 70 employees working 12-hour shifts, two massive former Safeway grocery stores are under local ownership, rebranded as Missoula Fresh Markets.

The big signs on the front of the stores – located at 3801 S. Reserve St. and 800 W. Broadway – still say Safeway, but co-owner Craig Holtet said those will come down on Tuesday. Inside, the new logos and labels are all green and white.

Holtet and co-owner Ron Ramsbacher, who bought Orange Street Food Farm in 2013, announced they were purchasing the two Safeway stores last December.

The sale came about because Albertsons acquired Safeway in a $9.2 billion deal last summer, and the company agreed to divest stores in certain cities to avoid breaking antitrust laws.

The process of rebranding a large grocery store overnight without disrupting customers too much was a “pretty ginormous process,” according to Holtet.

One of the big first steps was to change all the labeling and in-store signage and logos.

“We tried to communicate with Albertsons/Safeway beforehand and talk with our crews and support teams and all the different departments – produce, meat, deli – and come up with schematics,” he explained. “We got everything printed and figured out how to put them on. That’s actually easy. The hard part is taking out all the Safeway hardware and software, wiping all their computers, and reinstalling all of ours. Hopefully, all of that is done in some sort of timely manner. A lot of times, it doesn’t necessarily go in order.”

Holtet said everything has gone relatively smooth so far. The Broadway store closed at 6 p.m. Wednesday night to make the transformation and will reopen as a new store Thursday morning.

“It’s been phenomenal,” he said. “Our customers are super excited, curious and want us to be successful. We live here and we know how lucky we are to live here, but we didn’t know how lucky we are to be surrounded by such great people. One guy who shops with us helped us out with our new signs. It’s the support from people like him around the community.”

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The two stores employ about 180 people combined, and Holtet said he has been impressed with how well his staff has adapted to the change of ownership.

“Our employees are super happy and engaged,” he said. “They are coming up with new ideas on how to make things better. They are a lot of fun to be around. We’ve had our team supporting us.”

The employees are having to learn new procedures on ordering and other logistics.

“Our delivery trucks come on different days,” Holtet explained. “The logistics are totally different.”

The new stores will have a lot of new offerings, he added.

“We will have a lot more Montana-made stuff in there,” he said. “We will rely more on our employees’ natural personality in what products we’re carrying. We have a person in the deli on Reserve designing sandwiches for river guides in the area with their names, that type of thing. Employees are being more empowered.”

Also gone are the complex pricing schemes that Safeway used, Holtet explained.

“Our pricing will be more simple,” he said. “No more ‘buy five and get two’ sort of thing. If you are one person or five people you get the same price. We want to get rid of confusion. We are trying to make it fair for everybody, so a family with a Suburban and five people isn’t the one getting the better deal over a single person.”

The two stores will keep the gas stations, but customers will be able to use a Conoco credit card to get a nickel off every gallon every time they use the card to buy gas.

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Holtet said the customer response has been overwhelmingly positive so far.

“Our customers already know their way around the store,” he said. “They are great people. They are still smiling. It’s not always smiles with big projects like this, but I got a call from one customer who was super excited with how they got treated. It’s fun to get a call like that.”

Holtet and Rambsbacher are both University of Montana alums and are excited to be able to increase the local ownership of Missoula businesses.

“We found some statistics that say 40 percent more money stays in the community (from locally owned businesses),” Holtet said. “Not only the money involved, but we’re much more supportive of our employees, and of their kids doing soccer or summer camp, and we can help them by sponsoring the event.

"It gives us a chance to be local. Safeway did some great stuff, but they were more national. We will be a bigger part of the community.”

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