Urban stores are a strength, Tops president says

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Ron Ferri, the president of Tops Friendly Markets, says the grocery chain has a long history of placing stores in low-income areas. Operating in urban cores is a strength.

“That’s been something that’s been part of our heritage since we started,” Ferri says. “We feel very strongly about being in those areas and serving the needs of customers.”

The second-largest grocery chain in Monroe County has stores on Upper Falls Boulevard in ZIP code 14605, and on West Avenue in ZIP code 14611. Those ZIP codes, respectively, have the lowest and third-lowest median household incomes in the county.

By placing two of its stores in those locations, Tops has given city residents easier access to sources of nutritious foods.

Ron Ferri (Photo: Tops)

“We understand that customers in those communities have transportation issues or challenges,” Ferri says. “We want to be in the heart of our community.”

Access to nutritious foods is essential for a healthy population. Experts have long pointed to the importance of greater access, including affordability, to such foods as a precursor for good health. A balanced, nutritious diet can lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers and other maladies.  Some researchers believe food retailers can play a key role in helping solve food insecurity challenges.

Tops, which is headquartered in the Buffalo suburb of Williamsville, opened its first store on Portage Road in the city of Niagara Falls in 1962. The chain now has 149 stores nationwide, including those in Buffalo, Syracuse and other cities. All of offer about the array of goods.

“If you go into a Tops store in the city of Rochester or any suburbs, the products are very similar,” Ferri says.

Though the grocery chain seeks to meet its customers’ needs, the size of one of its stores can limit the size of its stock. That, in turn, can depend upon how the company acquired the building in which it is housed. Tops avoids constructing new stores when it can acquire existing properties that suit its purposes.

“That’s kind of where our growth is going to be coming from, not so much ground-up new builds, in the near future,” Ferri says

Tops’ West Avenue store, which opened in 1999, is housed in a building that was once owned by Wegmans Food Markets. At 43,000 square feet, the store is about average-sized for the chain.

“We operate stores from 10,000 square feet all the way to up north of 100,000 square feet,” Ferri says.

Though Ferri called Tops’ willingness to serve urban customers “a strength of our organization,” the chain’s other 10 Rochester-area stores are all located in suburbs, reflecting a pattern that has long existed among grocery chains.

Of the 11 stores the ALDI grocery chain owns in Monroe County, two are located in Rochester. Wegmans, the area’s largest grocery store chain, has 17 local stores, only one of which is in the city. All of Walmart Inc.’s local stores are in the suburbs.

City Councilmember Mitch Gruber, Foodlink’s senior vice president of community impact, has extensively researched the local retail food landscape. He has laid much of the blame for the urban/suburban split upon the standards grocery chains use to place their stores.

“When grocery stores are figuring out where they are going to locate their businesses … they look at income levels … and they decide where to go based on that,” Gruber said, when interviewed for a Rochester Beacon article on the local food system.

Ferri declined to say whether Tops’ suburban and urban stores differ as to profitability, but insisted that its city operations are profitable.

“We know how to run and serve the communities in the metro areas,” he said. “As an organization, we don’t shy away from city locations or metro locations.”

Last October, Tops completed a $600,000 remodeling of its Upper Falls Boulevard store.

Though the competition with other grocery chains is steep, Ferri believes his company can deal with the challenge.

“We feel that we’re well-established, and we offer unique services for the community,” he says.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

2 thoughts on “Urban stores are a strength, Tops president says

  1. The Beacon story on Top’s urban presence needs further clarification and correction. The Walmart store on Hudson Avenue is physically located within the city limits, and it was one of that chain’s first stores located in a city anywhere in the nation. Also, the city made a multimillion investment to upgrade and expand the Public Market, thereby expanding fresh foods and meat options to our residents. Furthermore, under the Tops management regime in the late 1990’s, several Wilson Farm stores came into the city. Some like the location at South Clinton and Goodman, offered limited selections of fresh produce and meats. The new Tops regime sold off or closed those stores, as well as the locations mentioned in Dana Miller’s note. Even with those closures, Tops still has a greater ROC presence than Wegmans, which in short order closed stores in Midtown, and on Mt. Hope, Driving Park, and Culver, leaving only East Ave open. Wegmans has built an iconic and beloved brand in greater Rochester and many other prime locations, but its contribution to the local urban food desert cannot be denied.

  2. The information regarding the Tops store at 450 West Ave is incorrect. That store was constructed from the ground up in 1998. The former Wegmans store was located at 56 West Ave and is now the Salvation Army. Former Mayor William Johnson worked with Tops and convinced them to build more stores in the City. Four were opened, on Lake Ave, Winton Rd, Upper Falls Blvd. and West Ave. The stores on Lake Ave. and Winton Rd. were later closed. Winton Rd was converted to an Aldi Store. The former Lake Ave. store is still vacant. In addition to the ones noted in the article, Price-Rite has 2 stores, and Save-A-Lot has one store in the city. Despite this, most City residents still have a significant lack of access to supermarkets.

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