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Riding the United Express

Forty-five-year-old convenience store chain Farm Stores Grocery is remaking its image, and over the course of this year, all 103 existing stores will be converted into Express Market stores.

The product selection is almost double what the typical Farm Store now carries, with prices comparable those of a supermarket. The mix includes fresh produce, laundry detergent, dog food, breakfast cereal, condiments and coffee.

"We're servicing the customer better by providing more of what they need," CEO Carlos Bared recently told The Miami Herald. "We replace the express lane of the supermarket."

Helping to fund Bared's expansion and a future venture into online grocery shopping will be Dr. Sanford Ziff, the founder and former chairman and CEO of Sunglass Hut. Farm Stores said Ziff has become a major investor and is lending his expertise to the company as a consultant. Bared's family is the privately held company's majority owner.

The new concept was tested at 18 stores in Miami last year. Those stores reported overall sales increases of about 20 percent, the report said. Once the entire chain is converted, that should boost corporate sales, which were about $73 million for the 2001 fiscal year, based on 23 million customer visits, the company estimated.

All the Miami stores should be converted by March, while the rest of south Florida is scheduled for completion by the summer. The remaining Florida stores will be done later this year.

The company began operations in South Florida in 1957.But over the years Farm Stores lost its focus and ended up in bankruptcy during the early 1990s.

Now the convenience stores have been taken over by a separate company, United Petroleum Corp., which has the right to use the Farm Stores name and products for a limited time through a licensing agreement. Over the next few years, the convenience stores must be rebranded and the Farm Stores name phased out, the report said.

Management is so confident in the new Express Mart concept, which uses a pre-fabricated design, that the company plans to open another 100 locations in south Florida over the next five years. The first unit is scheduled to open this week.

Later this year, the company expects to launch an Internet grocery component in Miami-Dade County. Consumers would be able to order off a Web site and pick up at their neighborhood Farm Store.

Farm Stores' executives and Ziff declined to reveal the amount of his investment or the percentage of the company he now owns. However, company officials hope Ziff's involvement will help attract other investors and improve the company's odds for success. Ziff is already working with management to help raise another $10 million or $20 million from venture capital firms, banks or private individuals.
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