It’s a Giant step for more jobs

Employees fix some aisles at Giant’s new store on Grant Ave. on Tuesday, July 19.

Kevin Cook/for the Times

A new supermarket opened in the Northeast last week. It was kind of a big deal, but that wasn’t just because the mayor and a bunch of other suits showed up to mark that opening the day before, or even because the Phillie Phanatic ran around the place as shoppers got their first looks.

The Giant at 2550 Grant Ave. is as Mayor Michael Nutter described it: big and bright. The market, which opened its doors at 8 in the morning on Wednesday, July 20, is also the grocery chain’s first Philadelphia store, but it’s hardly the Northeast’s only market. There are several already in business not far away.

The big deal is that Giant’s Philadelphia premiere adds 275 full- and part-time jobs to the city’s sagging economy.

“If we need anything more than fresh foods, we need jobs,” Nutter said during a news conference on July 19, the day before the opening. “Welcome to Philly.”

The new store is 74,000 square feet, and Giant itself is big. The company is the third-largest private employer in Pennsylvania, said spokesman Chris Brand. It has 185 stores and 31,000 employees.

Giant began operations in Carlisle, Pa., where it still is based, in 1923. It has been operating in the suburbs for a couple decades and has stores in upstate Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

Giant’s parent company is big, too. The grocery chain is owned by Netherlands-based Ahold, which operates almost 3,000 stores with more than 200,000 employees in America and Europe. In the United States, Ahold also owns Martin’s and Stop & Shop food markets.

“Projects like this just don’t happen,” Nutter said during  the confab, noting that City Councilwoman Joan Krajewski (D-6th dist.) was instrumental in making sure the market was built.

Brand said the project was in development for more than two years. The Grant Avenue Giant has a modern and spacious décor, a wi-fi café, pharmacy and gas pumps.

The company puts a lot of emphasis on its produce quality and selection. For example, Brand said, the store sells about 40 kinds of mushrooms. Giant buys produce from Pennsylvania farms, he said, and the produce section has a list of those farms and their locations.

Nutter said the store opening will benefit Greenworks Philadelphia, a broad initiative that outlines the city’s future “green” strategies.

 ldquo;A key goal of the city’s Greenworks Philadelphia plan is to bring local food within a ten-minute walk to seventy-five percent of our residents by 2015,” Nutter said.

The Northeast store also offers a variety of kosher products. How large that variety is seemed to surprise some customers, said John Ponnett, Giant’s director of fresh.

The Giant’s kosher bakery and deli are operated under rabbinical supervision, Ponnett said, so “customers can have greater confidence” in the kosher products they buy.

The company did a lot of market research — ran focus groups, conducted surveys and reached out to neighbors as the project was developing, Brand said.

On July 19, the company’s president, Rick Herring, said Giant lives and gives in its community.

“We regularly assist local non-profits,” he said.

The company handed out $10,000 of that assistance last week. Beneficiaries included the Philadelphia fire and police departments, the food bank Philabundance, the city school district, the Gershman Y, Children’s Hospital, Liberty USO, NAACP, St. Joseph’s University, the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and even the 8th Police District Advisory Council.

PDAC member Elsie Stevens said her organization got $1,000 from the grocer. The PDAC hadn’t asked Giant for anything, she added.

“They sought us out,” Stevens said, noting that the money will be used for events sponsored by the organization, including next week’s National Night Out anti-crime program.

The grocer also donated 50 park benches to Keep Philadelphia Beautiful for placement throughout the city. The benches are made from recycled plastic shopping bags that customers return to Giant stores.

Brand said lines of people waited to enter the store when it opened last Wednesday. “It’s a pretty big opening,” he said while surveying the scene. The Phillie Phanatic added his famous brand of zaniness to the flash of cameras and cheers from customers.

Those first-day shoppers had to walk by two groups of demonstrators as they entered and left the store. About 20 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union quietly paced back and forth outside, promoting unionization for store employees.

The other protesters were four men who publicized the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community-based organization of workers in low-wage jobs throughout Florida. The protesters wanted Giant to sign on to an agreement that would increase the pay of CIW tomato pickers and improve their working conditions.

Brand said he would not comment specifically on the demonstrations, but handed out a prepared statement in which the company said it recognized the right of organized labor to conduct the demonstrations.

 ldquo;Giant is a locally operated grocery chain committed to providing the best working environment for our associates,” the statement said. “This collaborative work environment results in being able to provide our customers with the lowest possible prices at a time when families are struggling to make ends meet in a difficult economy.” ••

Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or