Ukrop’s sale marks the end of an era

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Print this page Robert Powell

It seemed fitting that the last story that Virginia Business worked on in its Richmond offices at Media General Inc. involved the sale of Ukrop’s Super Markets Inc.

The acquisition of Ukrop’s represents the end of an era in Richmond. It is more than a family-owned grocery store chain. It is a revered community institution.

Ukrop’s status in Richmond is a bit hard to explain to people who live in other parts of the state. That may be one reason that the Ukrops family is selling. The mystique did not seem to follow the company when it opened stores in other cities. Ukrop’s doesn’t sell alcohol or open on Sundays. Richmonders accepted these limitations as evidence of the uncompromising standards of the Ukrops family, which has strong roots in the Baptist Church.

These practices, however, probably struck new shoppers as old-fashioned if not odd and inconvenient. They don’t know there is much more to the Ukrop’s legend.

The company prides itself on customer service. Employees take your groceries to your car and refuse to take any tips. Stories circulate in Richmond about customers who discovered they didn’t have their checkbook after the cashier had already rung a cart full of groceries. At most stores, the cart would be pushed aside until the customers could pay. At Ukrop’s, the story goes, the customers were told just to take the groceries and pay the next time they were in the store.

In addition to treating customers well, Ukrop’s was known as a civic leader, sponsoring the city’s Christmas parade, an annual 10-kilometer race on Monument Avenue and its Golden Gifts program, in which a portion of its sales was donated to charity.

Despite being open only six days a week, Ukrop’s became Richmond’s dominant grocery retailer, commanding a 40 percent market share at one point. But things change, the company lost its top standing this year to Food Lion. In recent years, Ukrop’s has been increasingly hemmed in by discounters like Food Lion and Wal-Mart at one end and trendy grocers like Whole Foods at the other end.

Brothers Jim and Bobby Ukrop announced Thursday that they are selling 25 of their stores to the Giant-Carlisle division of Ahold, a Dutch supermarket giant. They explained at a press conference that they simply did not have the size or the buying power they needed.

At Virginia Buiness, it was too late to get the story into our January issue. It had already gone to press. But our special projects editor, Jessica Sabbath, attended the press conference and phoned in the story to be put on our Web site.

At the time, our desks in the Media General building were nearly bare and surrounded by boxes. The next day our computers were turned off in preparation for our move today to our new home, the Virginia Association of Counties building about 10 blocks away.

After 23 years as a part of Media General, Virginia Business was sold in September and now is a independent publication. The move brings a sense of finality to the separation. Just like the sale of Ukrop’s, it is the end of era, but we are excited about our new home and the prospects for the coming year.

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