By Mara Reynolds
New Leaf Market and its owner, New Seasons Market, announced Tuesday that they have been bought out by West Coast-based Good Food Holdings — the deal is expected to close in January 2020. As first reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting, New Seasons CEO Forrest Hoffmaster said, “It’s considered a merger from an operating structure, but it’s a 100 percent buyout.”
Though expected to continue to operate independently and as B Corps, the shift in ownership will include a significant shift in the direction of profits. Although there were numerous safety and labor complaints under ownership by Endeavor Capital (as reported by Voices in March 2018), employees held out hope that they might eventually be able to become unionized or even worker-owners, and that the companies would retain their locally-oriented cultures and relationships.
Those hopes are being stretched even thinner now. Good Food Holdings is a subsidiary of Emart, which is in turn a part of Shinsegae Group. Emart, it turns out, is owned by a number of major investors, most of whom reside far overseas from the local neighborhoods New Seasons and New Leaf markets serve.
The two biggest shareholders are a mother and son, Korean billionaires Lee Myung-Hee and Chung Yongg-Jin, with close family ties to Samsung. The third is the Government of Singapore. More troublingly, other owners include the Vanguard Group and private equity firm BlackRock Fund Advisors — which have been criticized for investing heavily in (and profiting handsomely from) global warming and weapons of war.
Together, the two grocery chains employ around 4,000 people. The sale was approved by News Seasons’ board. The purchase price has not been disclosed.
Like New Leaf in Santa Cruz, Portland’s natural foods grocer New Seasons Market, “the friendliest store in town,” has long benefited from a reputation of green, progressive values and generous loyalty to employees’ local communities.
But the announcement of the buyout has drawn swift criticism from labor groups and customers alike in Portland and across the Northwest. Though the stores’ branding may stay the same, it remains to be seen how far customers can suspend disbelief that shopping at these stores really supports their local communities.