When Tracy Lindsey joined Fresh Thyme Farmers Market in February of 2013, it had eight employees working out of a two-room office above a motorcycle shop in Phoenix, Arizona. Today, the natural food chain has 1,300 employees, and there seems to be no end to its expansion plans.
“Our vision was to open 45 stores in six years, but now we’ll probably open 130,” says Lindsey, vice president of construction. “The brand is being well received, and we’re finding that there are a lot of great locations for our format and size.”
Chris Sherrell, a veteran of the organic-grocery industry, is the visionary who launched Fresh Thyme Farmers Market in November 2012. He saw it as an all-seasons farmers market offering healthy and value-oriented fresh food 12 months out of the year, and it’s this very concept that has guided the chain’s store design and drawn customers. “Essentially, he wanted to put the farmers market concept inside four walls,” Lindsey says.
In a conventional grocery store, six to nine percent of total sales come from produce, but at Fresh Thyme, that number is 30 percent. And, the produce—along with other perishables such as meat and bakery items—is specifically positioned front and center. “Most stores wrap perishables around conventional grocery; we wrap conventional grocery around perishables,” Lindsey says. “Our produce department is positioned from the rear to the center of the store, so no matter what department you’re in, you’ll walk into the produce department.”
Sherrell still wanted Fresh Thyme’s concept to have widespread appeal, though. “He didn’t want it to be intimidating,” Lindsey says. “Whole Foods may attract a clientele with income in the top five percent while we’re seeking to appeal more to the masses, bringing a natural organic product and healthy lifestyle to the average American.”
Lindsey, who’s been in the industry for 30 years and is a certified supermarket designer through the Food Marketing Institute, was the perfect candidate to bring Sherrell’s vision to life. He got his start in the industry in 1983 as a part-time draftsman for Louis Grocer Company in Indianola, Mississippi, and he met Sherrell in the 1990s when both worked for Colorado-based Wild Oats. “Chris was a store director, and I remodeled his store,” Lindsey says.
At Fresh Thyme, Lindsey achieved Sherrell’s vision with a 29,000-square-foot store prototype—30–60 percent smaller than a typical Whole Foods store but two to three times larger than a Trader Joe’s—that includes natural materials such as stained concrete floors and reclaimed lumber as well as natural lighting via open ceiling decks with skylights. “It’s a warm and inviting design that makes the average customer feel at ease shopping with us,” Lindsey says.
Adding to Fresh Thyme’s accessibility are its low displays. Its offerings are set on fixtures that generally stand 54 inches or shorter, so there’s nothing blocking shoppers—wherever they happen to be standing—from seeing 90 percent of the products on sale. “Look 180 degrees, and you’ll see produce, bulk food, and food service,” Lindsey says.
The displays are limited in their length, too, with the longest, a grocery gondola, running 36 feet. This creates a pinball-machine effect, moving patrons from area to area throughout the store without ever making them feel trapped in long aisles. “We get high marks on customer service because no matter where you are in the store, you can see one of our associates,” Lindsey says.
In 2014, Progressive Grocer declared the Fresh Thyme prototype the Store Design of the Year for stores under 34,000 square feet, so now it’s full-speed ahead for the chain—thanks also in part to a major investment from Meijer, Inc. Sherrell opened the first store in the Chicago suburb of Mount Prospect in April 2013, and there are currently 10 locations, with 16 more planned for 2015, 20 for 2016, and 25 for 2017.
An important part of the growth plan, according to Lindsey, will be careful site selection. The company uses 150 indicators to determine optimal locations, but chief among them—aside from position in the Midwest—is education. “People with a college degree tend to make better decisions about the food they eat, and they earn more money,” Lindsey says, explaining that his team took that customer profile, laid it over the Midwest, and created “hot spots” for store locations.
Otherwise, Fresh Thyme simply wants to be where the action is. “We’re currently doing everything from downtown urban projects—stores with six floors of condos above us and underground parking—to standalone locations in the suburbs,” Lindsey says. “And we’re finding success in both.”