Winn-Dixie #208 / Foodtown Supermarket of West Palm Beach
5335 North Military Trail, West Palm Beach, FL - South Wind Plaza
Another leap day is upon us (2/29/2020), and as usual on AFB, that bonus day means its time for a bonus store! Our last leap day store was a 1960's built Publix entering its final days, but this time around, we're going to take a look at one of the many Floridian supermarket oddities out there: Foodtown Florida.
For those of you unfamiliar with Foodtown, Foodtown is a chain of supermarkets whose locations are primarily clustered around the New York City metropolitan area (in addition to a few locations scattered about in Eastern Pennsylvania). Like its much more famous competitor ShopRite, Foodtown is run as a cooperative, where individual owners run each store with its own unique twist. Due to the cooperative format, every Foodtown store can feel a bit different, as the individual owners get to determine things like product mix, decor, employee uniforms, etc. For the most part, the Foodtown stores in the Northeast are run like typical supermarkets with typical grocery store fare. Due to the corporate cooperative structure, some Foodtown owners may choose to tailor stores to the neighborhoods they're in, adding things like expanded international products or gourmet offerings to the usual fare. While I've only been inside a Foodtown store in the Northeast once, it was a decent small-town store, and served its purpose well. Unlike those stores in the Northeast, though, Foodtown Florida is a completely different story...
In 2006, Winn-Dixie was still in the middle of their massive bankruptcy restructuring. Prior to the bankruptcy in 2005, Winn-Dixie boasted over 1,000 stores throughout the Southeast. A year later, that number would be cut in half. With all those closed locations to deal with, many of them were being sold for pennies on the dollar at bankruptcy auctions as Winn-Dixie tried to raise cash and mend their troubled finances. It was at one of those bankruptcy auctions where a man named Esmail Mobarak, owner of three Foodtown stores in New York, decided to place bids on four recently closed Winn-Dixie stores in Florida. Mr. Mobarak's bids were accepted, and in June 2006, he was officially granted ownership of four recently closed Winn-Dixie stores in West Palm Beach, Plantation, Davie, and Merritt Island. With his winning bid, Mr. Mobarak announced he would reopen his four recently purchased stores under the Foodtown name, the same name he used for his three stores in the New York area. Even though Foodtown doesn't have a distribution presence in Florida, the company allowed Mr. Mobarak to use the name for his four new stores. In order to differentiate himself from the other grocery stores in Florida, Mr. Mobarak decided to used an "international market" format for his new Foodtown stores, specializing in selling hard-to-find products from around the world. While the thinking was good, using the classic "be a grocery store different enough from Publix to not compete head-to-head with them" strategy, it wasn't 100% successful for Mr. Mobarak. Two of his four new stores (Merritt Island and Plantation) closed within the first year. While he lost two Florida stores so suddenly, something must have stuck with the other two, as the West Palm Beach and Davie locations are still around today, 15 years later.
This store itself began its life as a 1st Generation Winn-Dixie Marketplace store in 1987, the very beginning of the Winn-Dixie Marketplace era. The standard 1st Generation Marketplace exterior design is still fairly obvious here, although the design was modified a bit to fit with the arched theme of the rest of the plaza. When Foodtown took over this store in 2006, they didn't do much to alter what the building looked like from the Winn-Dixie days. Besides a little bit of paint, most of Winn-Dixie's decor, fixtures, and even their dirt and grime were carried over to Foodtown. Yeah, this place was a bit of a dump. It certainly wasn't the cleanest looking store I've ever been to, and there were some...interesting...people hanging around the parking lot during my visit. The lady panhandling at the front door was also an...interesting touch. This was certainly one of the sketchier stores I've visited personally, but I drove all the way here for some Winn-Dixie remnants, so I decided to head inside and see what I would find...
Heading inside, you walk past the service desk and end up in the produce department. Like a usual Marketplace era Winn-Dixie, produce is located in the front right corner of the building. Here I'm standing in the produce department looking toward the front registers, where we begin to see some of the 1st Generation Marketplace funky ceilings over the registers.
Looking into the front right corner of the building itself, we can see plenty of Winn-Dixie remnants appear before us, such as the gray floor tiles and the pastel pink hanging lights.
While the two Foodtown Florida stores use the Foodtown name, the Florida locations don't appear on Foodtown's main website. The Florida locations once had their own website, but that's since been made inactive (although prior to it disappearing, it hadn't been updated since 2012). While these stores officially use the Foodtown name, Foodtown corporate doesn't seem to recognize these stores anymore. There isn't much information out there on Foodtown Florida after its creation, or if an official separation with the parent company actually happened. I do know that the West Palm Beach and Davie locations both have different owners, with an entity called "National Markets LLC" owning the West Palm store and "Davie Marketplace LLC" owning the Davie store. There's also a chance the two Florida stores aren't related to each other at all anymore, and are Foodtowns only in name. Regardless of what happened, it's a strange situation.
Even if these stores did go rogue from Foodtown corporate due to their distance from the rest of the chain, we'll still be seeing plenty of remnants from this building's past life in here, which is always fun. The product selection was interesting too:
It's not often I've come across bitter melon and baha at the store before (or ever, as I'd never heard of either before seeing it on the shelf this day). Doing some Googling, these vegetables are popular in Asian cooking. The bitter melon is related to the cucumber, and baha is the stalk of the elephant ear plant. As grimy as this place was, this store did excel at providing a large selection of unusual and hard to find international products. As we'll see as we go along, this place hardly offered any traditional groceries, focusing almost exclusively on international foods.
Looking across the front of the store, the classic Winn-Dixie floor tile pattern begins to appear in the produce department.
Now looking down the length of the produce department, there's no denying what this store used to be! While Foodtown might have changed the color scheme a tiny bit, you don't get much more classic Winn-Dixie Marketplace than this! (Well, you can, but it's just getting harder to find out there in the wild in such an original form).
The raised ceiling extends all the way to the back of the building, with the old Marketplace tiling running the length of the building too. The floor throughout the store was cracked and worn (as you can see here), although I wouldn't be surprised if Winn-Dixie was the last one to do any maintenance to this place.
The raised ceiling over produce was one of the most interesting features of these 1st Generation Marketplace stores, which I why I got so many photos of this area.
Located behind the produce department, in the back right corner, was Foodtown's meat and seafood counter. The portion of Foodtown's meat and seafood counter we're looking at now was originally home to Winn-Dixie's deli. Foodtown doesn't operate a deli, so the meat and seafood counter was extended into this space from its original home off to the left. This place had one really big meat and seafood counter, with the service counter taking up the back third of the store. The remaining back wall space was home to meat coolers. Meat and seafood seemed to be the big draw to this place, as the service counter was busy during my visit here. If you zoom in on the above photo, I unintentionally captured the weekly meat specials on that sign. Like with the produce, the meat specials included some more hard to find offerings, including live frogs and eels.
We'll get back to the meat and seafood counter momentarily, but first we'll snake through some of the grocery aisles. The aisle pictured here was the first grocery aisle after the produce department, looking toward the front of the store.
Turning the corner, here's another look across the front of the store. The check stands were located behind those bins of produce, which spilled over from the main department. The front aisle was unusually narrow, as Foodtown was stuffing displays and pallets of stuff all over the place in here.
Jumping into another grocery aisle, I'll take a moment to explain how this place is laid out. Instead of grouping similar items together like a typical grocery store (like all drinks in one aisle, and all chips and snacks in another), Foodtown groups products together by countries and cultures. The aisles closest to the produce department were home to products from Asian countries, the aisle photographed above being an example of one of those. After Asian foods, the center store products went like this (roughly): Caribbean foods, Hispanic foods, Frozen Foods, wine and non-foods (chemicals, paper, etc.), Middle Eastern and Indian foods, and bulk products. The grouping makes a lot of sense for people looking for products from one culture, but if you're looking for a specific product category (like sodas), you could wander through the whole store and find it in four different places.
Here's a sampling of some of the snack products in the Asian foods aisle. While some products had English words on them (like the "Pistachios" at the top there), some items were entirely in different languages, so I had no idea what some things were besides hints from the pictures on the package. I had a fun time looking through some of the snack foods here, and ended up taking home with me a few foreign snacks, cookies, and candy bars to try. A few items I looked at were a bit out of date though, which is apparently a problem with this store based off customer reviews.
The flags and decorations were a nice touch to this aisle, and some graphics of scenes from Asia were added to Winn-Dixie's stripe on the wall.
Returning to the back aisle, we find the rest of the service meat and seafood counter. There are lots of Winn-Dixie remnants on the back wall, including the diamonds and red stripes.
Winn-Dixie's old aisle markers were reused by Foodtown too, as can be seen here. The aisle above and the next aisle were home to Caribbean/Hispanic foods.
Foodtown must have went through the trouble to get new placards made for the aisle signs to match Winn-Dixie's old ones. I can't imagine Winn-Dixie having had a special placard made for Guatemalan Foods when they were here.
Here's one more grocery aisle in the Hispanic section, before we transition to frozen foods:
Frozen Foods resides in the center of the store, the typical home of frozen foods during the Marketplace era. The ceiling, the coolers, and the flooring are all original to Winn-Dixie. The coolers are definitely old, possibly original to the store's 1987 opening as Winn-Dixie. It also looks like the coolers aren't in the best working condition either, as those yellow strips pushed against the bottom of the coolers are absorbency pads to catch water from leaks.
Foodtown added a bit of their own signage to the Frozen Foods department, such as the banners and the department sign itself. Foodtown's frozen foods sign does seem to have a bit of a resemblance to Winn-Dixie's original though.
Passing through frozen foods, some more old signage from Winn-Dixie appears. The "Quality Fresh Meats" sign and the goosenecks in front of it are Winn-Dixie's (although the goosenecks are of the Purple/Maroon variant, probably added during a quick early 2000's refresh with the matching aisle markers).
Leaving frozen foods, the grocery aisles then transition into Indian and Middle Eastern products.
In addition to the huge meat and seafood counter on the other side of the store, the Middle Eastern side also had its own Halal meat counter located along the back wall. Next to the Halal meat counter were frozen Halal foods, which we'll see momentarily.
Before we get to the aisles of Middle Eastern dry groceries, Foodtown has a few aisles of non-food products located between that and the frozen foods. Wine is also located in this transitional section as well.
Moving along to aisle 12 though, we find the Middle Eastern grocery section.
Navigating our way to the back wall, here is the Halal frozen section I mentioned before, located to the left of the Halal meat counter.
After the Middle Eastern/Indian groceries, the last few aisles of the store were home to bulk products, like giant bags of rice. These last few aisles traded out the traditional grocery shelves for these warehouse-esque steel racks, and were tightly packed with stuff. In addition to the bulk products, there were a few random shopping carts full of bread in this aisle. Those carts of bread were the extent of this store's bakery department, as there was no service bakery here.
The towering cases of water really made this aisle feel cramped, as if it wasn't already narrow.
The very last aisle in this store, which was extremely narrow, was home to beer coolers as well as more bulk shelving.
Claustrophobia receding, we now find ourselves in the front left corner of the building. The space you see here was originally home to Winn-Dixie's bakery department. Since Foodtown doesn't run a bakery, this area was turned into a cafeteria (like most ethnic stores in Florida have).
Some random pallets of stuff were being used to block off the unused right side of Winn-Dixie's old bakery department.
Making our way to the front end once again, we navigate through the maze of pallets filling the area in front of the grocery aisles (most of which were behind me when I took this photo, as the pallets were blocking any good sight lines for photographs). The shelving you see immediately to my right is blocking Winn-Dixie's old pharmacy counter, which I'm sure is 100% still in-tact behind all that shelving.
It's hard to tell, but the check lanes are located to my right in this picture. All the tall shelves of stuff block the view of the check lanes from the main aisle.
As you probably could have expected, Foodtown reused all of Winn-Dixie's check lane counters too. Surprisingly, Foodtown swapped out the old lane lights for their own custom ones, which match the design of some of their promotional signage hanging throughout the store. Since this store got the quick Purple/Maroon signage refresh in the early 2000's, the lane lights probably would have gotten swapped out for these in Winn-Dixie's later years.
With that view of one of the the check stands out of the way, we find ourselves back outside. Pictured here is the door on the right side of the building, opposite the one I entered through. Funnily enough, I never actually noticed the giant "No Videos. No Pictures." sign taped to the front door (visible if you click on the picture above and zoom in) until I was editing these photos to post a few days ago. Oh well. Even if I saw the sign during my visit, it wouldn't have bothered me much anyway.
Even though this place could use a good deep cleaning and some maintenance (as well as an enforced no loitering policy in the parking lot), they have found a niche market with the wide selection of hard-to-find international products offered for sale here. Since Foodtown is doing its own thing here in Florida, this store has been able to hold on for as long as it has.
I'll end this post with a final photo of the store's exterior, taken from within the car as I was pulling out of the parking lot. While I'm still not sure of these stores are "official" Foodtown locations anymore or not, the name doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon from the two remaining Florida locations. I guess that will continue to make Foodtown yet another odd addition to Florida's crazy supermarket scene.
From grand openings to hard failures to random Northern supermarket chains finding a small sustainable niche, we've certainly seen a lot on AFB this month! However, for the next few posts, we turn our attention back to Florida's most famous supermarket failure story: that of our old pal Albertsons. Unless some more shocking Floridian supermarket news breaks in the next few weeks, that is my plan, so come back in two weeks for more!
So until the next post,
The Albertsons Florida Blogger