Safeway has had a presence in Missoula for at least 72 years, but come February it’s likely to vanish from the local market.
The owners of the Orange Street Food Farm have purchased the city’s two Safeway stores and plan to operate them as Missoula Fresh Market, pending approval of the Federal Trade Commission.
Craig Holtet and Ron Ramsbacher, who together purchased the Food Farm last year, announced the deal Friday afternoon. The purchase comes as Albertsons works to acquire Safeway in a $9.2 billion deal approved by shareholders in July.
“There’s a merger going on between Albertsons and Safeway, and because of that they had to divest,” said Holtet. “We were worried about who our competitors would be and what that would mean to Missoula. We were approached, and we’re excited to turn (these stores) local.”
Holtet said the two Safeway stores together employ about 180 people. The new buyers plan to keep the staff in place under the Missoula Fresh Market banner. They also plan to honor any accrued vacation earned by Safeway employees.
“We’re worried about our employees thinking things will change,” Holtet said. “We already have a benefit plan, and vacation and retirement at this (Orange Street) store. If anything, we’re going to try to add staff with our focus on service.”
Holtet said the two Fresh Market stores will focus on local products. As they did after purchasing the Food Farm, they plan to expand the deli, add to the beer and wine selection, and introduce locally grown and Montana-made products.
The Western Family brand will also replace any Safeway-brand products, Holtet said. The new owners will introduce their own line of organic products, replacing the line carried by Safeway.
“Shoppers will see a lot more in the stores,” Holtet said. “They’ll keep the same or have a better selection because we’ll add Montana-made and local on top of the products they have.”
Holtet believes that placing a national chain under local ownership will benefit shoppers. The gas operation at both stores will continue, he said, but gimmicks used by the national chain such as club cards and buy one, get one free will vanish.
“We’ll continue to sell gas, but you won’t need a card to get 3 cents off or keep track of your benefits,” Holtet said. “We’ll have straightforward pricing and shoot for the best prices in town.”
Holtet said competition in the grocery business is tight, something the Wall Street Journal attributed to changing consumer habits and increased pressure brought by Walmart Stores and the online marketplace.
Holtet believes the Albertsons acquisition of Safeway should be completed in January, and the Missoula Fresh Market banner will appear in February. The two stores are located at 3801 S. Reserve St. and 800 W. Broadway.
“By keeping it local, we can react better to the immediate needs of our consumers,” Holtet said. “The best part is the way employees get treated. That’s what we’re excited about. We get to be a bigger part of the community than those stores were.”
Holtet and Ramsbacher both attended the University of Montana and were friends in college. Ramsbacher went to work as a certified public accountant and Holtet entered the grocery business, which included work at Missoula’s two Safeway stores.
Holtet said the Orange Street Food Farm will continue operating independently and will not carry the Missoula Fresh Market banner. He believes the Safeway stores will remain open during the transition.
Missoula is currently home to four Albertsons stores, two Walmarts, Costco, Rosauers, several organic food stores and several independent stores, including Pattee Creek Market.
Safeway's presence in Missoula dates back to at least 1943, according to an old city directory.
“We’re excited to continue the sense of community that Missoulians have long known at the Orange Street Food Farm,” Holtet said. “You can come into our stores, see people you know, relax and have a more casual and personal shopping experience.”