INFRA founding member Earth Fare rejoins retailers trade group

A private equity firm’s 2012 purchase of the North Carolina-based natural grocer disqualified Earth Fare from belonging to INFRA. Read more about the relationship.

Melaina Juntti

June 19, 2024

4 Min Read
INFRA founding member Earth Fare rejoins retailers trade group

One of the founding members of the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association, better known as INFRA, is rejoining the organization after a decade away.

Earth Fare, an independently owned chain with 18 locations across seven states, helped set a strong foundation for INFRA in 2005, when four values-aligned retailers launched the alliance to give independents a stronger voice and greater purchasing power. Today, INFRA’s membership includes more than 350 retailers that serve hundreds of communities nationwide.

Launched in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1975, Earth Fare has weathered dramatic ups and downs over the last decade. But under new ownership, the company has returned to its roots, regained its footing and resumed a position of strength.

Left, Pat Sheridan, president and CEO, INFRA; Henry Kugler, chief operating officer, Earth

“We are excited to return to the INFRA community, an association that embodies our core values of health, sustainability and integrity,” Earth Fare COO Henry Kugler said in a press release. “Being part of INFRA allows us to collaborate with like-minded partners who are equally committed to making a positive impact on food systems and local communities.”

According to Pat Sheridan, INFRA president and CEO, Earth Fare’s homecoming honors the two organizations’ shared history. The company’s main objectives in rejoining, Sheridan said in an interview, are “to gain support from other independent natural food retailers through INFRA’s peer networking opportunities, to leverage INFRA’s collaborative buying power and promotional programs and to engage in INFRA’s staff training platform.”

Earth Fare headquarters in Asheville, North Carolina

A fallen retailer redeemed

Earth Fare’s return to INFRA—and reemergence as a growing, thriving independent—follows a rough stretch for the business. After a period of solid growth and expansion into new markets, the company was purchased by Oak Hill Capital Partners in 2012. The private equity firm took an 80% stake in the chain, which then was valued at $300 million.

With the acquisition, Earth Fare was “no longer an independently owned retailer and therefore no longer eligible for INFRA membership,” Sheridan says.  

Oak Hill implemented an aggressive expansion strategy to capitalize on the nation’s growing appetite for natural, organic and locally sourced foods. Fueled by the firm’s heavy investment, Earth Fare swelled from 25 locations to roughly 50 stores by 2020.

But the competition grew fiercer by the month, as a whole slew of natural chains—Whole Foods Market, Sprouts Farmers Market, Natural Grocers, The Fresh Market, Fresh Thyme and Lucky’s Market—expanded rapidly throughout the 2010s. Meanwhile, mainstream supermarket chains like Kroger, Safeway, Publix and Hy-Vee significantly increased their natural and organic offerings.

Soon the natural products retail market was saturated. In early February 2020, mere weeks after both Lucky’s Market and Fairway Market declared bankruptcy, Earth Fare announced it would discontinue operations, liquidate all inventory and sell off its assets. Citing “continued challenges in the retail industry,” the company filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, revealing $77 million in loan debt and $60 million in other unpaid expenses.

Fortunately, Earth Fare’s saga didn’t end there. A group of investors, including one of the company’s original co-founders, purchased a handful of Earth Fare stores at auction. By July 2020, the scaled-down, refocused retailer was back in business. Independent once again, the company reinforced its commitment to local foods, clean ingredients and the core values that drove its success in the first place.

Under the new-old ownership, Earth Fare has thrived. The company has expanded its footprint across the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic, but done so in a smarter, more measured fashion.  

Strengthening INFRA

According to Sheridan, Earth Fare’s return will benefit INFRA members as a whole “by “amplifying our united voice in the industry, which will in turn positively impact each of our members’ communities.” Additionally, he says the company’s “added shared expertise is a welcome addition to our retailer community.”

Earth Fare’s broad presence in the Southeast is another key perk. “It will add purchasing strength to our already incredible network of retailers in the region, allowing us to negotiate expanded favorable deals with our partners in the industry,” Sheridan says.

The renewed partnership also pushes INFRA closer to its bold vision of providing 1,000 communities with healthy, sustainably sourced foods.

“INFRA sees a future where independent natural food retailers are thriving at the heart of every community, strengthening their local economies and committed to make healthy, sustainable food accessible to all,” Sheridan says. “We believe this is imperative for the survival and growth of communities across our country, and our goal of serving 1,000 of those communities is evidence of our commitment to that belief.”

About the Author(s)

Melaina Juntti

Melaina Juntti is a longtime freelance journalist, copy editor and marketing professional. With nearly two decades of experience in the natural products industry, she is a frequent contributor to Nutrition Business Journal, Natural Foods Merchandiser and Melaina is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and is passionate about hiking, camping, fishing and live music. 

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