Southern Season store to open in Charleston area

Dec. 17, 2012 @ 06:11 PM


 The owners of Southern Season, the longtime gourmet food store in Chapel Hill that was bought by a group of investors last year, are planning to start off the business’ expansion with a new store near Charleston, S.C..


The expansion will be fueled by $12 million in additional capital, said Clay Hamner, the CEO of Southern Season Acquisition Corp., the business’ parent company.

Hamner, an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, is managing partner of the investment fund Carrboro Capital Corp. that partnered with another fund, Tryon Capital Ventures, to buy the Chapel Hill store last year from its founder, Michael Barefoot.

Hamner said the additional capital will be used to launch the new store in leased space in Charleston, as well as a store in leased space in Richmond, Va.. He said they believe they’ll be able to generate cash flow from the additional stores to help them build more.

The plan is to grow to a total of 10 stores in five years. New locations are planned for Charlotte; Birmingham, Ala.; Atlanta; Nashville, Tenn.; in northern Virginia; and in Florida in Palm Beach and in Naples.

“We’ve identified the cities, and we’re working with local developers and brokers to find the right locations,” Hamner said. “We have to be in a very specific-type location.”

The second Southern Season store is expected to open early next summer in 44,000 square feet at the Brookgreen Town Center in Mount Pleasant, a town near Charleston.

The store will have a gourmet food market with local and international products, a restaurant, a wine selection, cooking school and a bakery, Hamner said in a news release.

“The Charleston area will love Southern Season and Southern Season will love Charleston,” said Billy Swails, the mayor of Mount Pleasant, in a statement in the release. “Not only will Southern Season meet the needs of our culinary mecca and foodie community with award- winning gourmet food and cooking supplies, it will also bring additional jobs to the area, from store and restaurant employees to architecture and building firms.”

While about 20 percent of the products at the Chapel Hill store are North Carolina products, Hamner said the store in South Carolina will “lean more heavily” on products from that state. He said the store will have North Carolina-made products as well.

“Even if we went to northern Virginia, we would promote the local, up and coming, garage-type entrepreneur that may start off making cookies or jam or hot sauce,” he said. “We’ll carry the North Carolina products, anything that sells – it just becomes our standard, regular item,” he added.

Hamner said a letter of intent has been signed for a new store in Richmond, but the location won’t be announced until the owners are sure that’s the “right location.”

He said multiple stores will allow the company to spread overhead costs, and they’ll have greater buying power.

“It has a lot of synergistic effects – primarily it’s one where you get to spread your overhead out,” he said.

Hamner said the store’s business as a whole has seen growth since 2009. This holiday season, if business at the store continues in the next seven days, the store will have an “extremely good year” and will meet its budget and goals.

The business took a hit in 2008, he said. The company saw its gift basket business drop during the recession as orders from businesses such as banks, law firms, accounting firms and car dealerships, slowed.

That segment of the business has seen growth since then, he said, although it hasn’t returned to levels seen in 2006 and in 2007 because of what he believes is a shift in business entertainment activity.

Changes have been made to the interior of the store since the purchase, Hamner said. The offices and storage at the Chapel Hill store were removed to allow an expansion of the shopping space. They’ve added new cash registers and a new security system, and also have two registers at each counter.

They also renovated the kitchen and interior of the Weathervane Restaurant, and increased its seating capacity.  They’re looking to renovate the restaurant bar, he said.

The business employs 432 between a warehouse in Hillsborough and the store in Chapel Hill now, during the holiday season. Normally, Hamner the business employs 313 workers, 88 of them salaried.

The company increased salaries by about 10 percent, Hamner said, and put in a retirement and vacation plan for salaried as well as hourly employees. They also have a 401(k) plan, he said.

Barefoot, who started A Southern Season in 1975 in an 800-square-foot space, still works full-time for the company as a consultant, Hamner said.