The middle of the road is a great place to get run over. Sadly, that?s what happened to a very fine grocery chain: Sweetbay. This week, the Belgian parent company of Sweetbay took a $265 million cash offer to sell the chain to Jacksonville-based Bi-Lo Holdings, which also owns Winn-Dixie. Here?s why. Sweetbay took years trying to reincarnate itself from the former identity of Kash n? Karry, succeeded in dramatically freshening its image and started building stores. Unfortunately, a torrent of forces kept giving the Tampa-run organization hurdle after hurdle. At the top end of the market, Sweetbay faced stiff competition from expanding upper-crust brands like The Fresh Market and Whole Foods.
In the low-price tier, Wal-Mart?s entrance into Florida took huge market share. Dollar General, Family Dollar and Aldi also started opening dozens of locations in the region. Warehouse clubs like BJ?s, Sam?s Club and Costco targeted shoppers looking to stock up on large quantities of consumables, as well as hard goods like TVs and soft goods like clothes. In the middle, Publix dominated with more than 1,000 stores in the Southeast, with many neighborhoods having a Publix store every three miles. Target has converted many of its stores to add large grocery sections, so shoppers can buy everything from bathmats and blenders to fresh fruit and frozen pizzas in one trip. Those same forces pushed Albertson?s out of the market and pushed Winn-Dixie into a bankruptcy process, from which it only recently emerged. That left Sweetbay to compete with barely more than 100 locations under its own brand, and after Sweetbay closed 33 locations, many grocery observers felt it was only a matter of time before another deal came along. Each week, we here at the Tribune physically visit five stores to price 30 representative grocery items: Publix, Target, Wal-Mart, Winn-Dixie and Sweetbay. Year in, year out, Wal-Mart has the lowest price and Winn-Dixie has the highest. Depending on how you calculate buy-one-get-one deals, Publix, Target and Sweetbay jockey in the middle. Ultimately, Sweetbay isn?t known for either low prices or fantastic service. They?re getting ?middled.? This is also why you?re seeing brands like The Gap, American Airlines and Applebee?s struggle, while brands like Costco and H&M at the bottom are doing fine, and brands at the top like Mercedes and Montblanc are thriving, too. Anyone in the middle risks getting run over. But all is not lost for fans of Sweetbay. When Bi-Lo acquired Winn-Dixie, they kept those stores as Winn-Dixie locations, and Bi-Lo acquired 10 Sweetbay locations that recently closed. So in all, you might see Sweetbay stick around. Other retail, restaurant and trend news around town: We?ve written recently on TECO?s request to boost electricity rates by 10 percent for residential customers. What some (including me) didn?t notice at first were all the other little fees TECO also wants to boost on customers. For instance: The base service charge would jump from $10.50 a month to $15. Moving to a new house in town? That ?transfer? fee rises from $25 to $28. Need power turned on ?same day?? That fee jumps to $75 from $65. Forget to pay your bill and need power reconnected? You?ll shell out $55 instead of $50. And if you just need temporary power at a construction site, that fee jumps from $235 to $260. A slew of fun restaurants have opened in recent weeks across town. For those shopping at the new Container Store on West Shore Boulevard, there?s a new burrito place next door, Lime Fresh. Essentially, it?s a Miami version of Chipotle, with Latin music, far more burrito and taco choices, salads, four kinds of guacamole, seven in-house salsas, beers and desserts like Key lime pie. Open for a week, it?s packed. Grimaldi?s New York style pizza opened at WestShore Plaza mall, though you may need a map to find it. Instead of the front promenade next to P.F. Chang?s and Maggiano?s, the Grimaldi?s location is on the far back of the mall facing Interstate 275. But the pizza is worth the trip for anyone who loves good New York style thin-crust, and there?s a huge wine and beer list. The Brass Tap opened its newest location in Carrollwood at 10019 N. Dale Mabry Highway. The restaurant is a sister brand of Beef O? Brady?s, which is opening locations all over the world. Look for more Brass Taps to open as well, as the company is scouting sites and recruiting franchisees. Orange Leaf opened its first Tampa-area frozen yogurt shop last, at 12908 N. Dale Mabry Highway in Carrollwood. Similar in many ways to Pinkberry and Yogurtology, Orange Leaf is on a growth tear, with more than 250 locations nationwide, and another 130 coming soon. It?s serve yourself, so your own willpower prevails here. We?re fans of the funky chairs and wedge-shaped spoons, as well as the blueberry and wedding cake flavors. If you?ve seen signs and ads across town for ?aio? cellular, here?s the deal. It?s a new cellular provider that?s a branch of a very established brand: AT&T Wireless. Taking a cue from T-Mobile?s move to go all pre-paid contracts, AT&T launched a little sibling brand called Aio, pronounced, apparently, ?A-Oh,? not ?Eye-Oh? or ?Aye-E-Oh? or whatever. Customers can pick from three plans: Aio Basic for $40 a month, Aio Smart for $55 a month and Aio Pro for $70 a month, all with unlimited data, text and domestic voice minutes. Consumer Reports notes the big difference. The cheaper the plan, the sooner Aio ?throttles? the data speeds. Phones range from basic to the iPhone5, and there are tablets, too, with cheaper data plans. AT&T provides the wireless coverage, so that?s basically the inhabited planet. Because we are duty-bound to report the latest Wawa gas station to open, here you go: Pinellas Park at 6200 N. 34th St.