It was Las Vegas, Valentine's week, and the headliners were big: Former President George W. Bush kicked things off as keynote speaker. Singer Paul Anka serenaded a black-tie crowd with old classics such as "Put Your Head on My Shoulder."
But the big buzz at the National Grocers Association convention was about a purveyor of sliced bologna and mouthwash: Acme Markets.
Supervalu Inc., the Minnesota corporation that owns the Philadelphia area's most ubiquitous grocery chain, had said just that week that it would sell a batch of Connecticut supermarkets. It had sold stores in Utah the summer before, and a brand new executive team was calling all the shots.
Would Acme, its jewel in the jam-packed Philadelphia market, be next?
" 'Gee,' " mused the group's independent grocers (Acme's competition), acutely aware of Supervalu's $8 billion in debt, declining revenues, and sudden appetite for asset sales. " 'This could be the sign that another one's going to go — and is it going to be Acme?' " said St. Joseph's University food-marketing professor John Stanton, who emceed the gala event with Anka and caught the convention buzz.
Rumors about the future of Supervalu's Malvern-based Acme Markets division have heated up in recent months, as CEO Craig Herkert, a former Wal-Mart executive, has set about retooling a company under scrutiny by Wall Street investment analysts for its sizable debt.
The debt was largely accrued in 2006 with Supervalu's $16 billion purchase of Albertsons L.L.C., which itself had scooped up Acme Markets and other chains in 1998 from American Stores Co. as part of a $12.3 billion deal.
But with the recession, shoppers are increasingly scouting multiple stores for low prices, rather than filling their pantries with just one supermarket trip. Many chains have seen sales suffer because of this, affecting profits and - in the case of companies traded on Wall Street, such as Supervalu - investor returns.
That makes it trickier to carry a lot of debt.
Supervalu spokeswoman Haley Meyer said yesterday that the company had no "immediate" intention to sell or close any or all of its 125 Acmes. "We don't have any plans that are looming on the horizon to close the Acme stores," she said.
Speculation, however, has been rampant, including among the ranks of Acme's unionized employees.
Many have lived through two acquisitions since 1998. They believe they have spotted evidence inside local stores that the chain may be on the market yet again.
"There's people that have been through in recent months, not trying to hide themselves, surveying the stores as potential buyers," said Wendell Young IV, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents about 3,600 employees at 40 Acmes in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
"They ask all the right questions, and they're not so secretive about it," Young said of strangers eyed in back rooms, or walking the aisles and taking notes without being stopped by managers.
"They interview vendors, they interview our employees, they walk around, clearly making their list and checking it twice," Young said. "We've seen it off and on since before Christmas."
Supervalu would not comment on the union's suspicions, Meyer said.
"If we determine it's necessary, we do make the decision to close stores that aren't meeting our goals and expectations, as was the case with our Utah stores and the Shaw's stores located in Connecticut," she said.
Investment analysts and industry observers say it is conceivable Acme could be for sale, especially since the chain is often criticized for high prices and has seen its regional sales lead shrink annually over Shop Rite, Superfresh, Giant, and others in the hypercompetitive Philadelphia region.
Selling off a chain can generate cash to spruce up other chains, pay down debt, or expand elsewhere.
In July, Supervalu said it was selling 36 Albertsons stores in Utah in a deal expected to generate $150 million in after-tax proceeds.
On Feb. 12, Supervalu said it would sell all 11 of its Connecticut Shaw's supermarkets, leaving the rest of its New England Shaw's stores untouched.
Supervalu has touted its efforts to reduce debt, but it also has said it will spend $700 million this year to improve and add stores.
What the company will not specify is how much, if any, of that money will be spent on Acme stores. (Supervalu also owns discount Save-a-Lot markets in this region.)
Last month's Shaw's sale was praised by analyst Scott A. Mushkin of Jefferies & Co., who in a research note said "the company should exit its more difficult markets like New England and the mid-Atlantic."
In an interview, Mushkin said the prospects of an Acme sale were stronger than Supervalu was letting on publicly. "Our market intelligence says maybe it's a little bit more proactive than they would lead you to believe," he said.
Selling Acme would make sense, Mushkin said, because it has been troubled for years, losing sales to competitors across the region, where it seems a newer chain is planting stores around every corner. (Brewpubs at Wegmans! Designer takeout at Trader Joe's!)
But selling Acme could be complicated for a number of reasons. A major one: Supervalu, once a strictly wholesale supplier to supermarkets, would likely want to hang on to its distribution center in Lancaster County, even if it sells most of the stores the center currently supplies. In addition, several buyers may be needed, given the number of stores involved.
Acme's struggles date back two decades, when American Stores decided to expand into the Sun Belt instead of building farther out in the Philadelphia suburbs, said Meredith Adler, an analyst with Barclays Capital.
"That was the beginning of a very tough time for them," said Adler. "It allowed others to make inroads."
Now, Acme stores are heavily concentrated nearer the city, while Giant, Wal-Mart, SuperFresh, and many others have staked claims to the affluent newer suburbs.
It's hard to know how tough, or how rosy, things really are at Acme because Supervalu does not report financial data by supermarket chain. But overall, the corporation reported a 9.4 percent drop in supermarket sales last quarter.
According to a June survey by Food Trade News, Acme sales were almost $2.7 billion in Philadelphia and its suburbs, including South Jersey and northern Delaware, compared with just less than $2.5 billion for second-place ShopRite. Its share of the market shrinks every year.
Still, Acme's lead position and number of stores are reasons for Supervalu to hang on, in Adler's estimation.
"I would not get rid of it," she said.