Little seems more mundane, and yet more necessary, than the process of delivering food to the people. At one time, it was a largely local process, driven by the sources of food closest to you and the mom-and-pop store within walking distance. The local sources are still alive and well, but the means of distribution for most consumers is the spacious and maddeningly-efficient supermarket.
Something that always amused me about supermarkets is the lack of a unified national brand. The closest might be Kroger or Albertson’s and the number of smaller regional names they cling to. But those regional names, Ralphs or Food Lion or Shaw’s, remain in operation among regionally-rooted stores like Winn-Dixie in the Southeast, Hy-Vee in the Midwest, or, closer to home, Market Basket. People develop a loyalty.
I live a few minutes from a Market Basket. It’s where I shop most of the time. But eight years ago, that store didn’t exist. Neither did the other two in greater Manchester. And the arrival of those three stores represented a shift in power in local grocery loyalties.
When I was a kid growing up in Bedford, the local grocery store was a long-forgotten name: Alexander’s. The chain was headquartered south of the state line, but Alexander’s owned the Manchester market. The original store in Bedford was part of the old Bedford Mall, at the north end of the plaza where Kohl’s sits today. By contrast, Market Basket had no stores in Manchester. The rumor was that the Demoulas family behind Market Basket had agreed not to interfere on Alexander’s turf in Manchester. Whether that existed anywhere on paper was another story.
Our local store moved in the early ‘90s to the Manchester line, to land that had once been a drive-in movie theater. The new store opened around 1992 or 1993, and with the move came a new name: “Alexander’s” was hung in tiny letters above a larger “Shop ‘n’ Save.” Alexander’s had been acquired by Maine’s Hannaford Brothers during the move, but to ease customers through the transition, the old name would stick around in superscript for a few years, at least for the stores in Manchester.
Through my teen years, Shop ‘n’ Save was the local grocery staple. The only real alternative was the smaller Vista Foods, the sales arm of a local grocery distributor. Shaw’s had stores in Goffstown and Merrimack, and the nearest Market Basket stores were in Concord and Londonderry, just far enough to be out of the way. Shop ‘n’ Save and Vista had another significance to many of my peers: they were the apparent leaders in employing kids from town once they were old enough to work.
Little changed in that sense when I left for college. Belgium-based Delhaize bought Hannaford Brothers, and the store did away with the cumbersome “Shop ‘n’ Save” in favor of the founding family’s surname on their stores. Victory Supermarkets, a chain with a couple stores in the Derry area, was acquired by Hannaford, the stores rebranded accordingly. Shaw’s tried to take a bigger piece of the Manchester market with a new store in a massive plaza on South Willow Street, but Hannaford still held the advantage.
The next test came from Stop & Shop, who moved into the city in a big way. New Stop & Shops were opened near the old Bedford Mall, on South Willow Street, and in the heart of Manchester off Valley Street. The new stores were well-appointed, even including gas pumps with an aggressive discount program. It was the first credible threat to Hannaford’s regional supremacy. But with a growing population, the stores managed to coexist in the face of competition.
Then came Market Basket.
For years, Market Basket had not been in the Manchester market at all. Hannaford tried to block the newcomer’s expansion to Manchester, citing the rumored agreement made years before. But in the end, the family-owned chain from Massachusetts made inroads with three stores in short order. A new store opened just off the highway in Hooksett. A second store was crafted from an unused industrial building in downtown Manchester, giving the downtown area its first major supermarket. And a third store opened in the northeast corner of Bedford, on the site of a former mini-golf course.
In a very short window of time, Market Basket went from no presence in Manchester to a commanding presence. And the new stores were not the claustrophobic discount stores many had feared. In line with the evolution of grocery stores nationwide, the new stores featured coffee cafés, sandwich counters, prepared foods for shoppers on the go, and a fresh, clean aesthetic. Well-stocked aisles of product were clearly no longer enough to woo shoppers from their comfort zones.
For months, shopping at the Hooksett store was a feat reserved for the brave and best recommended for late hours of the evening. Maybe it was the convenience; the three stores were not immediately near any opposition. Maybe it was the loyalty; many people who had lived near a Market Basket spoke highly of the chain. Either way, where Stop & Shop and Shaw’s had merely coexisted, Market Basket made an impact. Within a couple years, Shaw’s closed a handful of stores in New Hampshire, including its big store in Manchester. Stop & Shop pulled out of the state altogether, leaving their big stores and gas pumps vacant. Hannaford, the entrenched favorite, remained, but the lines at the checkouts were shorter than they used to be.
It was about a year later that Market Basket appeared in the national headlines. In 2014, a family power struggle culminated in the firing of a popular president and CEO. An unlikely boycott resulted, with employees, long-time shoppers and others refusing to back the new management and demanding the reinstatement of the CEO. A resolution was reached after two months of barren store shelves and empty parking lots, and many feared the chain had suffered immeasurable damage.
But instead, things returned to an almost immediate normal. The store bounced back, maybe even stronger than before. The stores in greater Manchester were no exception. As the newest (and least-established) stores in the state, it was easy to be concerned, but the two slow months were merely a speed bump along the way.
Since then, a handful of new players have thrown their hats into the Manchester grocery ring. Whole Foods Market opened the doors to a brand-new store and bistro across the river in Bedford. As much of the land surrounding the new store is redeveloped, rumors have suggested that a Trader Joe’s might not be too far behind.
Not to be outdone, Hannaford relocated its Bedford store to the vacant Stop & Shop across from the redesigned Bedford Mall. Opened in 2016, the new Hannaford is a flagship for a store layout that includes more specialty focus on items like cheese, beer and wine, an in-store café, more prepared foods, and grocery pickup.
For the budget-minded shopper, New Jersey-based PriceRite took over part of the former Stop & Shop on Valley Street, while Aldi continued its New Hampshire expansion with a new store on South Willow Street last year. And while talk has been quiet in the last six months, a small group in the city has been working for years at bringing a food cooperative to the Queen City, in the model of successful food co-ops in the Upper Valley and Concord.
The grocery arms race in Manchester continues. And I wonder where we’ll be shopping in ten or even twenty years. And, perhaps, where my friends’ kids will be working in sixteen or seventeen.