Sunflower blooms in a dry time - The Explorer: Business

Sunflower blooms in a dry time

Grocery store opens to big crowds at Marana Marketplace

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Posted: Tuesday, October 6, 2009 11:00 pm | Updated: 1:33 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

Sunflower Farmers Market opened its Marana Marketplace doors early last Wednesday morning.

By noon, managers were calling suppliers. They were running out of food.

"You can only anticipate so much," said Chris Sherrell, chief operating officer for the company. "Our coolers are only so big."

Lines were deep at the store, located at Orange Grove and River / Thornydale, through opening day.

"I need baggers on the front end," one manager called over the intercom.

"It's the kind of problems we love to have," Sherrell said. People "stayed calm, surprisingly, even through the chaos. People were thanking us for how smoothly it went. You worry about first impressions and customer needs." But, when customers see workers moving briskly and with urgency, they understand, he said.

Sunflower Farmers Market gave a bag of groceries to each of the first 200 people through its doors Wednesday morning. Some people began overnight vigils as early as 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Sunflower Farmers Market looks for customers who "want to live a healthy lifestyle, #1, and who don't have all the money in the world," Sherrell said. The company's slogan is "Serious Food … Silly Prices," and it's meant to make a point – "we can bring the natural lifestyle to a larger audience, and make it affordable," he continued. "We want to be the stepping stone to do it."

A full 25 percent of Sunflower Farmers Markets' business is produce. "It's our lead, no doubt about it," said Sherrell. "The backbone is produce." The company has a 100,000-square-foot distribution center in Phoenix, from which it feeds Arizona stores within a two-hour drive. A store typically needs four to five truckloads a week of fresh food. "Freshness is always high," he said. Typical customers shop 2-1/2 to three times a week. "It's proven people want to live this lifestyle."

It's a risky time in the grocery business, Sherrell acknowledges. The impending closure of Basha's on Tangerine at Dove Mountain Boulevard in North Marana is "indicative of the economy." For Sherrell, a native Arizonan, a Basha's closure is "sad to see."

"Conventional stores are really, really fighting for market share," said Sherrell.

But Sunflower is growing. The Marana store is its seventh new store to open this year, with others in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Austin, two in Dallas and another at First and Wetmore in Tucson. Executives continue to scout out additional locations for openings in 2010 and beyond, a release said.

"Tucson is one of our best markets," Sherrell said. "The only problem is we're running out of places to put stores."

Sunflower Farmers Market signed documents for the Marana Marketplace site more than 18 months ago. Development company Larsen Baker was "great" to work with, Sherrell noted.

This is a "ground up" store, which requires more time than remodeling of a standing building.

"We can sign and open in an existing box in six to eight months," Sherrell said.

But the company's in-house construction team, led by Pat Gilliland, who's built more than 100 grocery stores, "can work their magic" with a new building. Sunflower Farmers Markets can lay out a new store just the way it wants, and "this is one of our most beautiful stores," Sherrell said. The space is open, with low-profile shelves, and comfortable for shoppers, "more of a farmers market, relaxed atmosphere. We get complements across the board."

Remodeling fits with the Sunflower Farmers Markets philosophy. "The economics of a second generation store" fit with the company's value proposition – "you can't have the most expensive rent" to keep food prices in line — and "our green approach," which incorporates the use of existing buildings and refurbished equipment, Sherrell said.

Sunflower sees a bright future in the Northwest, with residential growth, and unmet needs in residential Marana just the other side of Interstate 10. "There's nothing like us around," Sherrell said. "We're confident, and very optimistic."

Dave Ramsey is the store director. There are 100 employees, a split of "about 60-40" between full and part-time.

Sherrell is an 18-year veteran of the grocery business. He's spent all that time with Mike Gilliland, who he calls Mike G, the founder and chief executive officer of Sunflower Markets. Sherrell was a $5.25 an hour deli clerk at Whole Foods before Gilliland left that company to start Sunflower Farmers Markets in 2002.

Sunflower Farmers Market

3860 W. River at Orange Grove, Marana Marketplace

Seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Sunflower Farmers Markets currently operates four markets in the Tucson area, located at Marana Marketplace; First and Wetmore, 4282 N. First Avenue; Speedway and Swan, 4645 E. Speedway Blvd.; and Broadway and Pantano, 7877 E. Broadway Blvd.

Sunflower, founded in 2002, now operates 27 stores in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Texas. It is based in Boulder, Colo.

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