Exclusive: Kroger in bid to acquire Fresh Market - sources

(Reuters) - The Kroger Co KR.N, the largest supermarket chain in the United States, is seeking to acquire Fresh Market Inc TFM.O, a U.S. specialty grocery retailer that has been exploring a sale, according to people familiar with the matter.

A can of Kroger brand mushrooms is displayed in Golden, Colorado in this September 15, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Kroger is in the second round of an auction process for Fresh Market that has also attracted other companies and private equity firms, the people said this week. Apollo Global Management LLC APO.N, KKR & Co LP KKR.N and TPG Capital LP are among the buyout firms participating in the auction, the people added.

There is no certainty that Kroger will prevail in the auction or that Fresh Market will agree to sell itself to any party, the people said, asking not to be identified because details of the sale process are confidential.

Kroger, Fresh Market, Apollo and TPG declined to comment, while KKR did not respond to a request for comment.

Shares of Fresh Market jumped as much as 23 percent on the news and were trading up 16 percent at $21.57 in early afternoon trading in New York on Thursday, giving it a market value of close to $1 billion. Kroger shares were trading down 0.5 percent at $36.67.

Organic and specialty stores such as Fresh Market, once insulated from the broader supermarket competition, have struggled as rivals such as Kroger have diversified into similar offerings.

Fresh Market said in October it had retained investment bank JP Morgan Chase & Co JPM.N to assist in a review of strategic options, including the potential sale of the company. 

Reuters had earlier reported, citing sources, that the Greensboro, North Carolina-based company’s founder and board chairman Ray Berry was considering taking the company private. Berry’s son-in-law, Michael Barry, who previously served as Fresh Market’s chief financial officer, was also considering rolling his 6.4 percent stake in the deal, the sources said at the time.

Fresh Market has 183 stores, which it operates across 27 states. Its predominately southeastern locations include North Carolina, Florida and Georgia. Its Mid-Atlantic and Midwest locations include Connecticut, New York, Kansas, Illinois and Oklahoma.

Last year, Fresh Market hired Rick Anicetti as chief executive to help battle low margins and declining same-store sales. He had previously served for eight years as President and CEO of Food Lion LLC’s grocery stores.

Peer Whole Foods Market Inc WFM.O, a leader in the organic sector, has seen the value of its shares drop almost by half in the last 12 months. In early November, Whole Foods announced a $1 billion stock buyback program, a dividend increase and capital structure plan. 

Kroger is no stranger to acquisitions in the fragmented grocery sector. In 2014, it acquired Matthews, North Carolina-based Harris Teeter for $2.4 billion. Last year it acquired Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based Roundy’s Inc for $800 million, including debt.

Reporting by Lauren Hirsch and Greg Roumeliotis in New York; Editing by Diane Craft