Food City is the hermit crab of Knoxville supermarkets, and its adaptability to neighborhoods across the city may have something to do with its success. The regional chain now has nearly 40 stores listed in the Knoxville phone book and a market share of around 30 percent.
On Clinton Highway, the Food City occupies a big-acreage store about the size of the neighboring used car lots. In Bearden, a cozy store is tucked tidily into a strip mall next to Bearden Elementary School. The real hermit crab in the chain is the Food City sitting beside West Town Mall at Morrell Road. In 2006, it scuttled into the shell of the Bi-Lo previously housed there.
Retail is a transient business. Nobody bats an eye when a plastic-looking McDonald’s module is demolished and an equally plastic Sonic pops up overnight in its place. Like Bedouins with concrete tents, we abandon entire Wal-Mart units and throw up brand-new ones 10 miles further down the same highway.
While Food City did abandon some of the eight Knoxville Bi-Los it bought in February of 2006, it chose to move into the Morrell Road store. From a design standpoint, it was a good decision.
Yes, the old Bi-Lo building is a standard piece of suburban retail architecture, but in an advantageous position on top of a hill overlooking Borders, Pet Smart, I-40, and the Cumberlands beyond. The large block-like front is set off by towers at either end, and anchored by a large central entrance that rises up into a striking glass skylight.
It’s impressive, really, kind of like Grand Central Station. Light pours in through the skylight, illuminating the balcony inside the central tower and the plants hanging from its railings. Pipes and ductwork cover the ceiling; big half-globe lights suspended from cables light up the floor.
The place still smells like the Bi-Lo (I’m convinced individual grocery store scents are unique, like fingerprints), the different aisles are still identified with Bi-Lo’s distinctive three-sided signs, and even the layout of the store is the same—the same substantial produce section on the right, then a reading center and natural foods, then groceries, and frozen foods on the far left.
The Bi-Lo railroad train still runs through the rafters on its elevated tracks, though it’s been covered in Food City signage, which is unfortunate, given the general clunkiness of the chain’s look and logo. The background colors are yellow and red, and the F and the C appear to have been rendered by a fourth grader with penmanship problems and smushed together.
And then there’s that flag, an American flag the size of Rhode Island hung in front of the sky-lit balcony. Poor Old Glory, over-displayed and under-noticed. Do we really need to be reminded what country this grocery store is in? This flag’s so big you can’t actually take it in, but it’s a cliché, a visual euphemism, the perfect emblem for the land of the free and the home of the enhanced interrogators.
But OK, I admit it, I like this Food City. The modest Food City feel doesn’t really fit in the grandiose surroundings, but that’s kind of jarringly interesting, and it’s still a great store. The selection is good, the staff is friendly, the store is clean, and the prices are reasonable (at $47.54, just pennies more expensive than a comparable shopping basket at the Bearden Kroger).
As at other Food Cities, sections of each aisle are set off for international and specialty foods—soups and pasta sauces, Asian, Greek, Hispanic, and German cuisines. In the natural foods section there was a complete display of Passover fare, as well as standard kosher foods on the shelves. The produce is abundant and high quality, the deli well stocked and its offerings tasty.
The Bi-Lo had a unified look and feel, but its selection was sometimes limited. Despite its name, prices were not that low. Food City makes do in all environments. All in all, this shell is better off with its new tenant.