For an Acme Market in Bryn Mawr, a brand new look

Manager Nick Caridesright helps a customer in the produce section at the new Acme in Bryn Mawr. The $14 million West Lancaster Avenue store replaced a smaller store on the site. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Manager Nick Caridesright helps a customer in the produce section at the new Acme in Bryn Mawr. The $14 million West Lancaster Avenue store replaced a smaller store on the site. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 08, 2012

Matthew Maratea jumped at the chance to transfer to the new Acme in Bryn Mawr. As a 25-year veteran of the iconic but stressed supermarket chain, the longtime produce manager hadn't seen a new store open in four years. A chance for a high-energy guy to grow professionally? Maratea couldn't resist.

Since leaving the Exton store to orchestrate the fruit-and-vegetable lineup at this new $14 million Acme on the Main Line, Maratea has been crackling with creativity, and cracking produce puzzles each day.

"This is my biggest challenge," the wiry aficionado of legumes and leeks said Wednesday, hopping toward a refrigerator case that had already been depleted of the day's supply of organic kale and organic navel oranges, and it was only lunchtime. "I'm having a hard time keeping this full."

The June 1 opening of the West Lancaster Avenue store capped a project remarkable not only for its rarity but also for how it reflects Acme's hemmed-in ambitions for growth despite unforgiving finances flowing from its corporate parent in Minnesota, where it is just one of several supermarket chains being managed nationwide.

Supervalu Inc., in fact, announced Wednesday that it would cut 2,000 to 2,500 positions at its 247 Albertsons supermarkets in California and Nevada starting a few weeks from now. Leading that effort is Dan Sanders, who took the helm of Albertsons earlier this year after having joined Acme as its president in 2010. (He was replaced locally by Keith Wyche.)

During his tenure at Acme, Sanders presided over hundreds of workforce reductions while steering a hoped-for turnaround of a chain where sales have declined but reinvestment capital has been at a premium.

The Bryn Mawr store, which replaced a smaller Acme on the same parcel, is considered a "flagship" by Supervalu: It looks the way many Acmes would if the company could pour tons of cash into its stores, many of which long predate flashier competitors that have moved into the region in recent years.

It has a prepared-foods wing that is, though on a smaller scale, similar to what shoppers have found alluring at Whole Foods, Wegmans, Giant, and other supermarkets, with a pizza stand, hot foods, even a counter serving up the famous sandwiches of South Philadelphia cheesesteak-and-pork outpost Tony Luke's.

The 37,000-square-foot market contains a more extensive produce section, has wider overall organic-food offerings, and a broad selection of gluten-free products — including a gluten-free deli counter, distinguishing it from the 64 other Acmes in the eight-county region.

The sales floor is twice the size of the Acme it replaced, said store director Nick Carides. But every inch was precious.

From adding a full kitchen to its prepared-foods wing to creating a more open, airy floor plan, the company maximized the space available. In a densely developed area such as the Main Line, land is scarce, and any new store must balance desire against available space.

Among the 137 workers is one of the chain's most skilled butchers, Carides said: a meat manager recruited from one of Acme's New Jersey stores to carve 4-inch, 5-inch, and other specially cut prime meats at a full-service butcher block.

How did Acme officials determine he was at the top of his game at butterflying and stuffing, say, pork roasts?

"We look at their performance," Carides said. "We look at their craftsmanship."

Company officials made decisions like these after analyzing customer demographic data around Bryn Mawr, as well as broader industry trends. That helped inspire Acme's produce overlords at divisional headquarters in Malvern to try something new at Bryn Mawr: "store door" delivery of organic produce.

Every morning, a fresh shipment of organic produce arrives at the store directly from a supplier in Philadelphia. That's key in a community such as Bryn Mawr, where the appetite for organics is decidedly strong.

"They foresaw that this was going to be a huge organic market," Maratea said.

Reviews of the new store were mixed.

"It's been great," said Carissa McIlwain, 33, a Bryn Mawr stay-at-home mom who had picked up salmon steak, lamb shoulder, corn, and other fresh foods Wednesday for a small dinner party. "It looks good. We'll see."

Another customer, however, Bryn Mawr psychologist Sally Holtz, was frustrated as she breezed through for party supplies.

"It doesn't have a lot of the things that the Narberth Acme has," she said, including a certain brand of cottage cheese that she prefers. She said she would reserve judgment until going through the entire store at least once.

Acme spokesman Steve Sylven said that a store redesign was under way in Newtown Square, and that another in Hockessin, Del., was scheduled to begin next month. But no additional new stores have been announced.

Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com or on Twitter @panaritism. Read her columns at www.philly.com/philly/columnists/maria-panaritis

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