A Massive Makeover

Shoppers look for last-minute bargains with less than two hours remaining before the Genuardi's in St. Davids closed on July 12.
Shoppers look for last-minute bargains with less than two hours remaining before the Genuardi's in St. Davids closed on July 12. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 23, 2012

Dave Margavich was nervous and maybe a bit officious in his store-manager uniform as stragglers pushed shopping carts through barren grocery aisles like zombies scavenging for the last bites off a carcass.

Their prey: the few discounted scraps that remained on shelves at the Genuardi's in St. Davids, a supermarket that opened on Lancaster Avenue as a jewel of the Main Line in 1992, but that on July 12 was mere minutes away from checking out its final customer.

The lone populated produce island contained 13 potatoes, nine oranges, 10 green apples, a few bananas, some plantains, and an oddly plentiful basket of garlic. Across the way, a bit of rosemary and a bit of bok choy beckoned from a 44-foot-long refrigerated case otherwise reduced to empty shelves and mirrors.

"Thank you for your 20 years of patronage," a woman said over the public-address system at 6 p.m., as the doors shut and cashier Chet Beattie swiped long hot peppers through Register No. 1, the only one whose light still shone.

"Do you have your club card phone number, please?"

The once-luxe Genuardi's was about to be formally taken over by speed-surgeons at Giant Food Stores, the Carlisle company that had bought this one and 14 others with plans to convert them all in near-record time.

Grand opening for St. Davids: Sunday, July 22.

Margavich, a 35-year Genuardi's veteran, had watched the once-beloved, family-owned grocer lose its gourmet luster under the ownership of Safeway Inc., which had bought the trend-setting chain's 39 stores years earlier in a move that alienated many customers. In January, Safeway decided to unload the 27 diminished stores that remained, and Giant scooped up all but 12 in this area.

Even though he and most of his 300 workers would be kept on as Giant employees, Margavich was edgy. This was the end of a long, scarred marriage. Never easy.

Still, the crew made sure to end things with class. Shelves were dusted to the very end.

"You can close a store sloppy," said Margavich, "or you can close a store neat."

Little did he know how little it would matter by morning.

Over the next nine days, crews of destruction and reconstruction would swarm Margavich's store for a multimillion-dollar makeover so massive, so compressed, it would leave heads spinning before the July 22 planned reopenings at St. Davids and four other locations - Flourtown, Maple Glen, Langhorne, and Chalfont. It would be the final wave of stores to get face-lifts, in an overhaul that began June 28.

At this 59,000-square-foot supermarket near the Blue Route, as at the others, a corps of contractors would bust their tails next to Giant workers, day and night, in a ballet of raucous renovation.

Normally, such a project takes three months. Giant would flip the joint in a little over a week.

The company would transform a total of more than three-quarters of a million square feet in shopping centers across the Philadelphia region. Quick conversions would, it was hoped, keep shoppers from defecting.

"It is a mammoth undertaking to watch hundreds of associates come together in a store, empty it, clean it, rebuild it, install new cases, and restock it for the customer," said the man in charge of it all, John Ponnett, 41, who as vice president of operations for Giant in Carlisle would be on site, on edge, and on tired feet for much of the next nine days.

Margavich seemed ready for battle, if a touch sentimental. He still remembered muscling shopping carts in a Genuardi's parking lot as a teenager, after getting the job through a connection with the human-resources office. He had even helped open the St. Davids store, one of many associates brought in for its carnival-like debut.

But the 53-year-old West Norriton man had never witnessed what was about to go down on his sales floor, a colossus of indoor real estate the size of a football field. An extreme makeover would transform spirits while reinventing a grand old space for a grocery chain on the move.

Giant was about to pull off the supermarket equivalent of an ultramarathoner achieving the unthinkable - and with a stopwatch ticking from start to finish.

Day 1: Friday, July 13

It was bright and early, and the automated front doors were off their hinges. The parking lot teemed with tractor-trailers, Dumpsters, and flatbed trucks - 23 at one time - to cart away the guts of the store. Discarded display racks and signs formed an island of unwanted wares.

Inside, the eerie inertia of the night before was a memory. Freezers and produce refrigerators were off-line, fans exposed, dismantled shelves tossed inside, as if 800-pound cases had been shaken by a superhero toddler.

The chill of refrigerator air, too, was gone. A musty, stagnant warehouse sweat was pierced by a chorus of pounding from every corner.

Cases clanged as they were torn down, and they rumbled as workers wheeled them to the loading dock. There, the hulks were strapped like shiny white Lincoln Logs onto flatbeds, to be scrapped.

Electric drills chomped through refrigeration piping, the roar echoing through the dairy and frozen-food wing as tons of cases were done in by men with fierce reflexes. Floor-to-ceiling pipes were left exposed like bionic limbs.

This was no longer a supermarket in an upper-crust zip code. This was a combat zone, with decorative shelves and freezers known as "coffins" piling up like the wounded awaiting stretchers.

Near the meat section, men struggled to hoist a huge coffin off the ground and onto a dolly. It slipped.

"Did you feel the floor shake?" Ponnett asked with a devilish smile while scanning e-mails on his phone.

At the same time, construction was getting under way at four other stores, and work was near completion at the five that had been stormed a week earlier. Giant had launched the conversion of its 15 Genuardi's in waves of five, beginning a few weeks earlier.

Ponnett had been on site since the first batch went dark June 28. He had begun drawing up the battle plans in December.

To Margavich, however, the sights and sounds were stunning. He was more used to running a stocked store than wrecking and rebuilding one.

"I walked in this morning, and there was a bulldozer sitting on the front sidewalk," Margavich said, his Genuardi's uniform replaced by a polo shirt and jeans. (A high-strung perfectionist with a comic streak, he joked about burning the uniform.) Giant had become the store's legal owner at noon.

"I walked in with my little door key," he continued, "and I said to the project foreman, 'Will you let me unlock the door for the last time?' "

Crews were ripping apart a floral kiosk near the entrance when Margavich and about 15 of his department heads began marching outside. Word had spread that a boom truck with a cherry-picker had pulled up to take down the Genuardi's sign.

They stood in handicapped parking spaces and looked up at the lavish black marble facade, where the sign came down, letter by letter, starting with the "S."

Some covered their mouths; others snapped photos with their phones.

"I was here when that sign went up," Wendy Comita, 52, an assistant manager with 25 years' experience, said to no one and everyone.

"I'm gonna cry," said bakery manager Patricia Seneko, 53, also a 25-year vet. "Oh my God, I'm gonna get chills."

Mechanic Greg Fischer was sawing through lead anchors that had been drilled through the marble and 18 inches of cinder block. Each severed letter made it into a U-Haul, joining an alphabet soup of vowels and consonants resected from other Genuardi's.

When the apple logo came down, 54-year-old floral manager Vickie Womelsdorf asked for it. As she wiped dirt from the weathered memento, she explained: "It's part of where we've been. . . ."

The Genuardi's gang went back inside to the customer-service desk, to disconnect equipment that had to be returned to Safeway. Above, a sign still said: "Apply Here. Join the Genuardi's Team."

Ponnett marveled at the fury of motion all around: "You can't believe this happens in a week if you don't see it."

Day 4: Monday, July 16

Keith Mozer was slurring his words. The man was beat. He had just overseen the replacement of 75 refrigerators and freezers. With old ones out, others ready for a paint job, and new ones in, the store now had more than 1,000 linear feet of cold-storage cases, which would boost frozen-food inventory by about 30 percent.

As project manager, Mozer was in charge of the dozens of contractors at St. Davids; this was his fourth Genuardi's in three weeks. Sleep was a luxury. His cellphone rang all night with questions like: "Are you sure this electrical line goes here?"

"It looks like chaos," he said, "but it's organized chaos."

On this day, the store buzzed with the sounds of rebuilding. A carpentry station had been set up near the front door, where millworkers were cutting wood trim for refrigerators and shelves.

New merchandise was being rolled out to the floor, stocked onto shelves by employees from other Giant stores there to help.

The parking lot was overflowing. Up to 300 people were working at any time.

Men on scissor lifts poked their heads through drop-ceiling tiles, attaching suspension wires to support beams, from which signs reading "Organic" and "Kosher" would eventually hang.

Mozer, 54, whipped out a color-coded floor plan: yellow for new cases installed; green for relocated or new shelving.

"This is everything that's happening in the store right now," he said, standing near a produce department where new refrigerated island cases had replaced a row of old room-temperature displays.

Meanwhile, 20 miles away in the stock room of a Super Giant in Willow Grove, Margavich was surrounded by starchy order.

In a crisp white shirt, tie, and slacks, he had dressed to impress, while his department heads wore Giant's dark green polo shirts.

They were in a two-day training class, and they were nervous. Had been from the moment they gathered on the parking lot the day before.

"It was like little kids on the playground" the first day of school, Margavich said.

They had been groomed for decades by Genuardi's, a company once so revered that getting a job when it was family-owned was nearly impossible unless you knew someone.

Though things got rougher after Safeway bought Genuardi's in 2001, starting over from scratch with Giant - a company growing and investing in its stores - was unknown terrain.

"It's exciting," Margavich said. "I have a lot to learn. We've been on information overload."

Before breaking for lunch, they chanted a slogan that appeared on a large screen: "Every guest will leave our store satisfied."

Day 6: Wednesday, July 18

Vinyl floor tiles had been replaced, patched, scrubbed and waxed. Old fridges sparkled with new white paint. LED lights gleamed in the produce aisle.

"I told you we could get it done," Mozer said of a space that finally looked a bit like a supermarket again. Refrigerators and freezers had been fired up the night before, restoring that familiar chill. Clerks stuffed cases with Ore-Ida frozen potatoes, yogurt, cheeses, and more.

Mozer was perky. He had silenced his phone the night before, determined to not be awakened every two hours.

"I got a solid four hours last night," he beamed, "so I'm good."

Digital scales at the seafood and meat counters had been successfully connected to computers at the home office. Three new register lines and six self-checkouts had been added out front.

"It's crazy," said Ponnett, walking past aisles whose shelves brimmed with the color of packaged goods.

By opening day, he said, the store would contain more than 14 tractor-trailer loads of dry and perishable goods.

"The planning is exactly as we expected it to be," Ponnett said, a smile on his face.

Day 8: Friday, July 20

It had poured rain overnight as they worked. But they worked and worked and worked. And by morning, the place looked almost shopper-ready.

The new floral department came to life as clerks clipped stems and tucked just-delivered arrangements into pots along the wall.

The roof had sprung a few unexpected leaks, but even those were no biggie.

"We think we've got 'em now," Mozer said.

Almost every aisle was packed with groceries; the sliced bread was just rolling in, though. Clerks scanned boxes and shelf labels, making sure they matched up.

Meat and seafood would be stocked the final day and a half, as would most produce. But cold cuts were in their new home, a big new case, while an electrician dropped cords from the ceiling to power five slicers.

"Store's looking great," Margavich said, checking a to-do list that would grow through Sunday's 8 a.m. opening.

Ponnett's legs ached, after clocking 75-hour weeks for a month. He shook each as he stood in the home stretch of a half-year-long race.

The store was full of frenetic troops, with plenty left to do through the weekend: butcher meats, unpack tomatoes, wrap and stock trays of chicken, sausage and fish.

"It will be nonstop," Ponnett said, "until we take scissors to the ribbon Sunday morning."

Watch a video

as a Genuardi's becomes a Giant Food supermarket. Also, see an interactive map and read earlier coverage. Visit philly.com/Giant

Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com or @panaritism on Twitter. Read past columns at philly.com/mariap

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