Food City upgrades freezers and meat coolers

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

Food City, the small Maine grocery store chain, is “looking to really make a comeback in Bridgton,” says owner Zak Sclar, who sees Bridgton as a great match

BRIDGTON FOOD CITY Manager Kirsten McKenzie-Wears stands in the frozen food aisle, where brand new freezers were recently installed on both sides. (Geraghty photo)

for his company.

“It’s a small Maine town and we’re a small Maine company,” he said Monday. “I feel like (doing business) is sort of a partnership between the residents and the merchants, and we have to do our part.”

For Sclar, that’s meant reinvestment. Over a million dollars worth, in fact.

A year ago, he began by painting all the inside walls and installing a new sign above the entrance to the 20,000-square-foot grocery store, located at Pondicherry Square. A few months ago, he installed all new registers at the checkouts. Most recently, he completed replacement of all the meat and frozen food cases throughout the store.

All in all, he said, the upgrades represent “well over a six-figure investment.” Eventually, Sclar wants to replace all of the refrigeration equipment. “It will depend on whether the consumer welcomes our changes by supporting us,” he said.

Food City opened in Bridgton in 1987, one of the first in a chain that now includes stores in Lisbon Falls, Wilton, Livermore Falls and Turner in Maine, along with a store in Turner Falls, Mass., and one in St. Albans, Vt. It has enjoyed a loyal customer base in Bridgton, but that base has been tested in recent years, especially since the opening of a Bridgton Hannaford supermarket a mile down Route 302 in March 2006.

Staying competitive for Sclar means offering the lowest meat prices in town and top-quality perishable goods. It also means reaching out to the community with a helping hand, reflecting the small-town culture in which his stores operate.

To achieve that strong community connection, Sclar feels lucky to have the energy and people skills of Kirsten McKenzie-Wears, Bridgton Food City’s manager for the past two years. He said she has made it her business to reach out to the community in tangible ways.

Food City, unlike most national chain supermarkets, still allows local charities to solicit donations by setting up tables at the entrance to the store.

This summer, McKenzie-Wears and employees worked with the Bridgton Community Center to put together up to 45 free lunches a week and delivered them to children at the center or the beach at Highland Lake Park.

Regular customers have also been treated periodically to the store’s Pizza-rama events, when extra-large homemade pizzas can be ordered for $5 each — no matter how many toppings are added. The Pizza-rama has been so successful and appreciated by its customers, in fact, that Food City has decided to hold the event every month.

Eventually, Sclar said he’d like to install a brick oven pizza at the store, similar to the one at Tony’s Foodland in Raymond.

“We’re very big on supporting the community,” Sclar said. A new program that ran in January returned one percent of all sales over $40 to one of three local charities — Harvest Hills Animal Shelter, St. Joseph Food Pantry or Bridgton Recreation. Food City ran 21 TV ads on Channel 6 to promote the program, and also featured it on its Route 302 marquee.

The program is customer-driven, in that the charity is expected to promote it and it’s up to the customer to mention it at the time of checkout, telling the clerk where he or she would like the money to go.

Donating one percent of sales over $40 might not seem like much, said Sclar, but it’s huge when one realizes the razor-thin profit margins the supermarket industry operates under.

“With this charity event we’re trying to put our money where our mouth is, and hopefully it’s just a start,” he said. The program may be continued using other charities, or other new promotional ideas may be tried.

McKenzie-Wears said Sclar has been very supportive of her efforts at the Bridgton Food City. “He’s really committed to keeping this store open,” she said. “We’re only going to be as successful as we want to be as a company if we support the community.”

Sclar said he welcomes comments from customers as to how the store can continue to improve itself and serve the needs of residents.

“We really feel there’s a place for the local Maine merchant. When I ask myself, ‘What does Maine-owned really mean?,’ what it means is, let’s try to keep as much money in the state and local community as possible.”

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