The Ukropalypse

As the economy started to take a nosedive late last year, Richmond institutions started falling off the map.

First came Richmond-based national electronics retailer Circuit City, and now S&K Menswear is selling off inventory and closing its doors. Ever since rumors first surfaced of Ukrop’s selling to North Carolina-based Harris Teeter a few years ago, the Ukrop family denied the speculation.

Though management still denies any sale or offer of sale, saying it’s their policy to not comment on rumors, the grocery industry publication Food World indicated Ukrop’s is clearly interested in buyout offers, thus beginning the "Ukropalypse," coined by fellow Twitter user Robert Sterling (@Mr_Sterling). The grocer has been circulating a prospectus, which gives insider information to potential suitors, listing the company’s selling points.

Let’s start with why this might be happening.

Ukrop’s was the leading grocer in the Richmond area up until last month. Why’d they lose the top spot? New players like Whole Foods and Trader Joes have come into the market, for one, but moreover, it’s the economy. Food Lion took the top spot because they offer lower prices, plain and simple. Traditionally, you go to Ukrop’s, you’re partly paying for an experience. Big, bright, beautiful stores with excellent customer service, freshly prepared packaged foods, a wide variety of hot foods like panini sandwiches, fried chicken and pizza, and a spacious cafe to enjoy your meal in. What other grocer offers this kind of experience?

Food Lion delivers a sub-par shopping experience in most of their locations, in my humble opinion, but I’m still not surprised they’ve taken the title away from Ukrop’s.

Also, Sunday is reportedly now the grocery industry’s biggest shopping day of the week, and other grocers in the Richmond area have definitely capitalized on capturing Ukrop’s market share on this day, while they’re closed. While I do have great respect for Ukrop’s very traditional decisions to remain closed on Sundays and to not sell alcohol, it’s sadly just not a viable business strategy anymore. Added touches like having your groceries taken to your car are also things most people are willing to do without if it means saving a little money.

If you look at this purely from a business standpoint, the timing may be perfect for the Ukrop family to cash in.

The Ukrop brothers, Jim and Bobby, are 71 and 62, respectively. They’re getting up there in age and, naturally, probably want to pass the torch to the younger generation sometime soon. Some say, though, that their children are not interested in the grocery business and may not want to carry it on.

Either way, speculation about Harris Teeter being close to a sale or having already sealed the deal to purchase Ukrop’s 28 stores is running rampant now more than ever. So let me play devil’s advocate here for a minute. 

I’ve been to one Harris Teeter store -- a brand new location near Corolla on the Outer Banks of North Carolina -- and I have to admit I was impressed. You could argue that they have that Ukrop’s-like quality and atmosphere, but no matter who, if anyone, buys out Ukrop’s, things won’t ever be the same in Richmond.

Yes, we’d likely lose Ukrop’s famous chicken salad, White House Rolls and Rainbow cookies, but much more than that, we’d lose an invaluable contributor to the community. Ukrop’s makes many charitable donations to area organizations throughout the year, including through their annual Golden Gift program.

The Richmond chain is also the title sponsor of big time area events like the Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10k and the Ukrop’s Richmond Christmas Parade every year.

The "Harris Teeter Monument Avenue 10k" just doesn’t sound right.

It boils down to this: Ukrop’s is one of those special things that makes Richmond what it is. If and when they go the way of other local icons like the Richmond Braves, it’ll leave a big, gaping "U"-shaped hole in the hearts of many Richmonders for years to come. As for me, I call dibs on the White House Rolls, potato wedges and mac-n-cheese if and when the supposed Ukropalypse should begin.

Trevor Dickerson is the founder and managing editor of DowntownShortPump.com and a regular contributor to Richmond.com.

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