Fresh Thyme Farmer's Market, a relative newcomer to the Chicago area's fiercely competitive grocery store landscape, plans to open a 320,000-square foot distribution center in suburban Bolingbrook by mid-August, according to company executives.
The announcement comes about a year after Fresh Thyme moved its headquarters from Phoenix, Ariz., to suburban Downers Grove. Both moves represent the young chain's intention of expanding in Chicago and throughout the Midwest in the coming years. The distribution center will employ about 100 people, said Fresh Thyme CEO Chris Sherrell.
In just a couple of years, Fresh Thyme has added stores and expanded its private label products. A centrally located distribution center will help support that growth and control costs, Sherrell said.
"We are really overdue," Sherrell said. "We're all hands on deck getting this thing going."
There are seven Fresh Thyme locations in Illinois: Chicago, Mount Prospect, Deerfield, Downers Grove, Crystal Lake, Joliet and Naperville. A River Forest store is scheduled to open in October, Sherrell said.
Fresh Thyme will sublease the Bolingbrook space from Aryzta, a Swiss baked-goods company, and is in the process of renovating the facility, Sherrell said. No economic incentives were involved in the deal, he said.
With financial backing from the Meijer grocery chain, Fresh Thyme has grown quickly since opening its first store in Mount Prospect in May 2014. There are 36 Fresh Thyme locations throughout Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Nebraska, with another 12 stores expected to open by the end of the year.
Since Dominick's went out of business in 2013, leaving dozens of stores to be occupied, a frenzy of competition among grocery chains has ensued. Jewel-Osco, the largest traditional grocery store chain in Chicago, has worked to fend off strong newcomers like Mariano's, Heinen's Finer Foods and Fresh Thyme, while stores like Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe's, Aldi and Pete's Fresh Market have expanded.
Fresh Thyme stores tend to be smaller, averaging about 28,000 square feet. The Fresh Thyme model is all about selling high-quality meat and organic produce at a lower price than competitors, Sherrell said. Going forward, the company also plans to beef up its food service and prepared food options in the perimeters of the stores.
Sherrell declined to disclose revenue or profit figures for the privately held company, but said the stores each average about $15 million a year in revenue.
Not all of Fresh Thyme's competitors have fared well. The Fresh Market, a North Carolina-based company with nine stores in Illinois, agreed to be bought by private equity firm Apollo Global Management for about $1.4 billion in March. Earlier this month, The Fresh Market announced it was closing 13 stores in Texas, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas.
A spokeswoman for The Fresh Market declined to comment Friday on whether Illinois locations — including Chicago-area stores could be next.
But Sherrell will be watching. He's also eyeing other locations in downtown Chicago, in the western suburbs and downstate. It's all about finding the right real estate opportunities, he said, while building name recognition with shoppers.
"Obviously, we have bold ambitions," Sherrell said.
"No disrespect to any other competitors — we have great competitors here — but the conventional grocery stores in Chicago are not the strongest in the country. But Chicago has more loyalty than in other markets. Some families have been going to the locals for three generations. You have to be patient," he said.