Wild Oats chain is poised to reopen this year

Wild Oats Markets Inc., the closed purveyor of organic and natural foods, is planning a comeback this year, potentially aided by local billionaire Ron Burkle.

The company, which has been out of operation since 2007, now says on its website that it is "re-introducing" its brand, bringing beverages, snacks, cereals, pasta and other goods to store shelves.

Burkle's Los Angeles private equity company Yucaipa Cos. seems to be involved. A trademark application filed by Wild Oats Marketing last June and published for opposition in late May lists Yucaipa's Sunset Boulevard address.

The trademark could cover a brand offering retail and online grocery store services, with features such as home delivery, phone-in orders, convenience store items and gasoline, according to the document. The application also described catering and take-out food services.

Yucaipa did not respond to requests for comment.

Burkle is no stranger to supermarket deals.

The magnate was the largest shareholder of Wild Oats when the brand was sold for $565 million to rival Whole Foods Market Inc. in 2007. Earlier in his career, Burkle handled leveraged buyouts of grocery chains such as Food 4 Less, Ralphs and Fred Meyer.

In 2011, Yucaipa was part of a consortium of investors that pumped $490 million in financing into the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., or A&P. The infusion allowed the Northeastern supermarket company, which owns the Pathmark chain, to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

As consumers become more health-focused and body-conscious, food products deemed to be organic and natural are gaining traction.

On Sunday, Target Corp. launched its Simply Balanced line of 250 products made without artificial ingredients and largely sans genetically modified content. The foods, part of Target's pledge to boost organic food offerings by 25% by the end of fiscal year 2017, include items such as blue corn flax tortilla chips and wild-caught Alaskan salmon.

Last spring, Berkeley-based organic food company Annie's Inc. went public, opening at $31.11 a share. The stock has since risen nearly 28%, closing Wednesday at $39.77 a share. So far this year, Whole Foods' stock is up nearly 12%.

If the Wild Oats reincarnation goes forward, Burkle may be looking to reconstruct the brand on the bones of another, less fortunate supermarket brand.

Anonymous sources told Bloomberg News this week that the billionaire is in talks to buy Fresh & Easy, the West Coast grocery company that was put up for sale in April by British parent Tesco.

Burkle hopes to use some or all of the 200 Fresh & Easy stores in California, Arizona and Nevada as a foundation for Wild Oats, according to the report.

Brendan Wonnacott, a spokesman for Fresh & Easy, said the company doesn't comment "on rumor or speculation."

Fresh & Easy, described by analysts "as something of an unfortunate misadventure" for Tesco, had trouble competing with native mega-brands such as Trader Joe's and Whole Foods and failed to make any money during its five-year run.

Tesco said it would take a $1.8-billion write-off to jettison Fresh & Easy. Chief Financial Officer Laurie P. McIlwee told analysts recently that Tesco was in contact with several groups interested in buying Fresh & Easy "in its entirety."

The chain's locations are tied up with complicated lease obligations, analysts said, but its relatively small stores, 10,000 square feet on average, may be appealing hosts to a nascent Wild Oats.

The company launched in 1987 with its first store in Boulder, Colo., and had 110 stores in 24 states and Canada when Whole Foods took over.

After an extended legal battle with the federal government over antitrust concerns, Whole Foods sold the licensee rights to the Wild Oats brand to food distributor Luberski Inc. in 2010. The brand's physical locations were parceled out to buyers including Trader Joe's, Kroger and Gelsons, according to Sam Hamadeh, head of research firm PrivCo.

The firm tracks financial data on private companies.

People close to the Burkle talks said negotiations are in late stages, according to Hamadeh, who added that the billionaire reportedly has an exclusive-look agreement with Tesco to conduct due diligence on the Fresh & Easy chain.

By his calculation, based on data on recent acquisitions of private supermarkets, Hamadeh said Fresh & Easy probably would sell for $230 million to $250 million.

"I think he's serious about it," Hamadeh said of Burkle. "These are his roots. Supermarkets are how he made his fortune."

If Burkle decides to house Wild Oats stores in Fresh & Easy locations, he may not stop there, Hamadeh said.

Instead, the mogul may also decide to convert the A&P and Pathmark grocery brands, which Hamadeh described as "frankly, old and stale," into "Whole Foods-style, high-end Wild Oats stores," he said.

"That's Ron Burkle's modus operandi, to combine companies into clusters and brand them under one name," Hamadeh said. "It's one plus one equals three, and he's done it over and over again in his career."

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com