A Recipe for Success: From Daitch Shopwell to Food Emporium

By Ernest Barbella

I have been involved in the retail food industry for nearly five decades, operating New York-area supermarkets, a tea company, and most recently a spice manufacturing enterprise and a producer of packaged pastas and skillet dinners. I got my start as assistant store manager in 1964 with Daitch Shopwell Supermarkets, which operated over 100 locations throughout New York. Over the next several years, I earned a promotion to District Manager, taking command of a seven-store group in the Bronx. Although I left the firm decades ago, it has been interesting following the ups-and-downs of this well-recognized New York institution, now known as the Food Emporium.

I worked for Daitch Shopwell at the height of its expansion following the 1955 merger of Daitch’s 34 stores in New York City, Connecticut, and Long Island with Shopwell Foods’ 18 Westchester County supermarkets. As the 1960s ended, the company expanded into Shop-Quik convenience stores, a move that caused a loss of corporate focus and vision. Turning to the Shopwell name exclusively in 1973, the firm similarly tried to expand into Vermont and Massachusetts with seven new stores. Unfortunately, the venture did not work out, and the company registered an $800,000 loss in 1976 when these units were sold. Restructuring resulted in closing of unprofitable Shopwell locations, and the chain ultimately scaled back to 65 total locations. Conducting extensive market research, Shopwell found that its brand name lacked a quality association, with customers primarily frequenting the chain because it was convenient. This was a wake-up call to the Rosengarten family who owned Shopwell, and in 1979, they launched the innovative Food Emporium format.

The rebranding of Food Emporium came after a realization during the consolidation process that the remaining supermarkets were located in the upper-end markets of Westchester County and Manhattan. At the time, no major supermarkets catered to this demographic, leaving the higher-end segment to small grocery stores. Instead of the industry standard 72-percent shelf space for basic food items, new Food Emporium locations allocated just 60-percent shelf space for this use, scouring the country for fresh and premium items to fill remaining shelves. This strategy proved successful and by 1983, some 17 of 55 total Shopwell stores had been rebranded to Food Emporium. The Food Emporium brand is thriving in Manhattan to this day, offering customers premium products that they cannot find at other supermarkets. I still feel some attachment to the Food Emporium, as it is a subsidiary of The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, which I served for several years as Vice President and General Manager.

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