TOPS Markets: Adapting, Engaging, and Serving Communities

The supermarket chain opened its first location in 1962: a 25,000-square-foot store in Niagara Falls, N.Y. TOPS has since gone through many changes and evolutions on its way to reaching 169 full-service supermarkets and five franchisees serving the Lake Erie region. The first major shift occurred in 1991, when Ahold, a Netherlands-based international food retail conglomerate, purchased the company. Ten years later, that relationship led to a partnership between TOPS and Giant Food stores, another Ahold company that was based in Carlisle, Pa.

However, TOPS struggled to fit within Ahold’s centralized organization and the multinational conglomerate decided to sell the brand to Morgan Stanley Private Equity. TOPS returned to local ownership in 2013 when CEO Frank Curci and six members of the company’s executive team purchased it from Morgan Stanley.

That same year, TOPS introduced Orchard Fresh, a new specialty food market concept in western New York geared toward the emerging organic, natural and health-conscious food trend. Combined with a series of acquisitions that occurred during Morgan Stanley’s time owning the company, the creation of Orchard Fresh positioned TOPS as a premier supermarket in its market. “TOPS is your friendly neighborhood store that has what you want, while saving you time and money,” the company says.

Community Ties

As a locally owned company, TOPS is better able to serve its communities. Following the sale, it moved its headquarters back to the Buffalo area to create a closer connection to its customers.

Returning home also enable TOPS to step up its community involvement. The company participates in a number of local events and supports several organizations. For the past 12 years, TOPS has worked with area food banks to organize a chain-wide food drive that feeds more than 1 million people in the Erie region. In 2018, the drive surpassed 3 million meals – equal to 30 tractor trailers filled with food.

“Hunger is something that affects our community year ‘round so a campaign like Food for Families is vital to providing the food necessary to help those in need beyond the holiday season over our 27 central Pennsylvania counties’ footprint,” said Joe Arthur, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank in a press release. “We are grateful for our partnership with TOPS and our friends in the media who help make this campaign such a success for those in need in our community.”

In addition to the annual food drive, the company supports a Check Out Hunger effort that facilitates monetary donations for local food banks. Since 2006, TOPS has raised more than $3.5 million for families that are food insecure. “At TOPS, we believe in eradicating hunger and assisting our fellow neighbors in need and so supporting this effort on an annual basis is something that we gladly stand behind,” Curci said.

“Both of these campaigns offered us the opportunity to come together as a community and show our support for those in need – showing that together we can truly make an amazing difference in so many people lives,” Curci said.

As a supermarket business, hunger is a natural issue for TOPS to tackle. However, the company’s philanthropic efforts go beyond feeding less fortunate members of its communities. In 2016, TOPS raised more than $189,000 for the United Way of Erie and Niagara County and also participated in donation drives for the Bradford Humane Society.

One of its most successful programs is TOPS in Education, which has raised nearly $700,000 for more than 1,000 schools during the past five years. “TOPS in Education program allows us to do so much more for our students,” Kelly Ashcraft, president of the Tiger Support Network from Warsaw Elementary School. “It really shows the dedication to the communities that the stores serve.”

The program raises funds by donating a percentage of the sale of select private brand items. “TOPS in Education helps our shoppers support the youth of their communities,” said Kathleen Allen, senior manager of community relations for TOPS. “This program fulfills a promise to our shoppers, a promise that helps them receive a fantastic value while helping provide funding to educational programs in the towns that we serve.”

Restructuring for Future

Just as it has supported its community, TOPS will need support from its customers as it enters the next stage of its history. After 56 years in business, TOPS is facing its biggest challenge. In February, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to eliminate debate. However, TOPS expects to emerge from bankruptcy in a stronger position.

As part of its bankruptcy filing, the company announced it had received a commitment for a $125 million debtor-in-possession loan from some note holders and a $140 million loan from Bank of America to support its continued operations during the court-supervised restructuring. TOPS also intends to pay vendors and suppliers in full under normal terms for all goods and services provided after Feb. 21, according to a company statement.

“TOPS has built strong market share and our stores continue to distinguish themselves by offering quality products at affordable prices with superior customer service,” CEO Frank Curci said. “We believe the financing that we received from our note holders is a vote of confidence in our business. Our operations are strong and we have an outstanding network of stores and a talented team to support them.”

In a statement, Curci said TOPS would undergo a financial restructuring to reduce its debt and achieve long-term financial flexibility. “This will enable us to invest further in our stores, create an even more exceptional shopping experience for our customers and compete more effectively in today’s highly competitive and evolving market.”

Customers should not see a noticeable change in the company’s operations as it works through the bankruptcy and restructuring. “Our priorities, values and commitments to our customers and our communities will not change,” Curci said. “On behalf of everyone at TOPS, we thank our customers for their continued support and look forward to ensuring that their every need is met. I also want to thank our 14,262 employees and associates for their continued hard work and dedication.”

Expanding Convenience

As TOPS works its way out of bankruptcy, the company continues to invest in convenience products and programs that will help it more easily fit into its customers’ busy lives.

In November, TOPS announced a partnership with Instacart to allow customers to shop online and have their groceries delivered to their homes as quickly as within an hour of ordering. “We know that our customers lead busy, active lifestyles, so being able to offer them home delivery essentially gives them the gift of time,” Senior Vice President of Marketing Diane Colgan said. “Thanks to our partnership with Instacart, our customers will now have thousands of items, including fresh meat, seafood and produce, literally right at their fingertips.”

In addition to home delivery, Instacart delivers TOPS orders to senior living communities, area businesses, hotels, apartments and college dorms.

The same-day delivery service through Instacart started with stores in the Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, N.Y., and Erie, Pa., markets and it has since expanded to Jamestown and Elmira, N.Y. “We’re excited to bring this program to even more communities across the state and now in the southern tier,” Director of Consumer Marketing and Digital Edward Rick said.

Instacart service is expected to expand to TOPS’s remaining stores by the end of first-quarter 2018. “Instacart’s success hinges on our ability to offer customers same-day delivery from the stores they love within their own communities,” Andrew Nodes, vice president of retail accounts for Instacart, said. “We are proud to partner with TOPS to give customers a convenient, time-saving option to get the products they rely on from their neighborhood TOPS Store.”

Just as the Instacart partnership makes it easier for customers to get groceries delivered to their doors, TOPS is simplifying the in-store dinner shopping experience. Last year, the supermarket introduced Chef’d meal kits, a line of dinner-made-easy products that provide healthy pre-measured ingredients for two people that can be prepared in as little as 10 minutes. The meal kits are similar to Blue Apron and other online food delivery services; however, they can be picked up in store and do not require a subscription.

TOPS launched Chef’d with five meal kit varieties: weeknight chicken pad thai, maple glazed pork chops, Cajun-style chicken pasta, pan-fried spicy pork udon and herb-crusted flank steak.

“We’re proud to be able to offer a quality meal solution like Chef’d to our customers,” Colgan said. “Chef’d partners with celebrated chefs and is led by an award winning culinary team with more than 30 years of experience in the food industry. Brining that experience and expertise from their kitchens to our customers’ tables to share with their families is something we’re very excited about.”