Goodbye to the last local grocery chain in Indianapolis

Indianapolis is losing its last, and its largest, local grocery-store chain. Marsh Supermarkets declared bankruptcy in May and last week closed deals to sell some of its stores. The rest will close.

Marsh Hometown Market
Agfa Clack, Ilford Pan-F Plus 50, 2015

Although Marsh was founded in 1931 in Muncie, Indiana, its largest market has always been Indianapolis and its surrounding counties. At its height, Marsh operated 86 stores around Indiana and other businesses as diverse as a chain of florists, a popular convenience-store chain, and a catering company. The company was owned by the Marsh family until 2006, when it was sold to a capital investment firm. The Marshes said that the competitive environment was becoming much more challenging, and it seemed like the right time to exit.

In recent years, Kroger, Walmart, and Meijer have all invested in Indianapolis, building new stores and renovating old ones. Meanwhile, Marsh’s new owners largely left their chain to molder. They did rebrand Marsh’s budget LoBill Foods stores as Marsh, a welcome change. But a few years later the company rebranded again, with some stores branded Marsh The Marketplace and others Marsh Hometown Market. It wasn’t clear to shoppers what the names meant. (It turns out that The Marketplace stores were full-line and full-service stores, and Hometown Markets were budget stores.) And then, strangely, all new stores built were branded just Marsh with a new logo. Most existing stores kept the old logo. It was a confusing mishmash.

iPhone 6s, 2017

But the confusion ends soon. A subsidiary of Kroger bought 11 locations, and an Ohio supermarket operator bought 15. That leaves 18 stores behind, which should close for good by the end of the month. All Marsh stores are liquidating, selling goods at up to 30 percent off.

From where I sit, Marsh’s demise has three major reasons.

First, its owner failed to match its competitors’ investments in their chains. Few new stores have been built and old stores hadn’t been refreshed in ages. Most stores retain a distinctly 1990s shopping experience.

Second, its confusing branding may have alienated shoppers. When my nearby Marsh converted to a Hometown Market, I shopped there far less frequently as it stopped carrying many of the nicer grocery items I enjoyed, several of which you could buy locally only at Marsh. (Such as delicious, but expensive, Stewart’s coffee. How I miss it.) Actually, thanks to items it no longer carries I can’t do all of my weekly shopping there anymore.

Finally, Marsh was the most expensive supermarket in town, full stop. I’m no fan of Walmart, but when they opened a Neighborhood Market grocery near my home a few years ago its far lower prices were impossible to ignore. I do my weekly shopping there, or drive past this Marsh to go to Meijer. So, I imagine, do most of my neighbors.

But it’s a shame to lose the last local grocery chain, a name that was so heavily identified with central Indiana. When prominent local businesses close, a piece of local identity dies. Kroger, Walmart, and Meijer are fine stores, but you can find them anywhere. When you shopped at Marsh, you knew you were in Indiana.

I’ll miss Marsh. But my life won’t change much, as I’d already moved on. Clearly, too many others in central Indiana had as well.


31 responses to “Goodbye to the last local grocery chain in Indianapolis”

  1. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    My sentiments are the same. I always preferred their meat counter to any other chain and up until the end there were a couple of items that only they seemed to carry.

    From all I have read family ownership didn’t do the company any favors during its last 15 years or so. The head man seemed more interested in living a lifestyle more like that of Henry Ford II during the 1970s than one befitting the owner of a small Midwestern grocer. The capital fund that bought them sued Don Marsh after the purchase, claiming that he had buried a ton of personal extravagance deeply in the corporate books.

    I forget how that came out, but their timing turned out to be horrible – they undoubtedly bought the chain to resell it but closed the deal not long before the economy imploded. By the time the economy improved competitive pressure had done its damage. A long sad story.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I was vaguely aware of Don Marsh’s misdeeds but not Sun Capital’s terrible timing in buying Marsh. That explains a lot.

  2. Gregg Avatar

    Further north we are fortunate to have Martin’s Supermarkets… similar in the sense that it is local, has the best meat you can get from a larger grocery store (there are smaller local butchers who are better), and is otherwise one of the more expensive options in the area. They have, however, reinvested in upgrades & appear to have adjusted store inventories to meet the needs of their neighborhood.
    They are also (mostly) the in-town option in direct competition with Kroger… while Meijer & Malwart battle it out in the fringes.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I grew up in South Bend and we were a Martin’s family. We shopped at the Broadmoor location on Ireland Road. I moved away before the Erskine Plaza location opened. Mom shopped there right up until she and Dad retired down here in 2014!

  3. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Milwaukee has a similar thing going on with the Kohl’s chain. Kohl’s department stores and grocery’s were all owned by one company in the distant past. They were sold to different entities and split years ago, the department stores trying to gain national dominance, while the grocery stores stayed regional. The groceries are trying to depend on the “muscle memory” of families that shopped there decades ago, and are literally the most overpriced and inconvenient food stores in the area. Meanwhile many far cheaper and far more interesting stores have opened up over the past 20 years. It’s only a matter of time until they auger in, as they say.

    I noticed that the Marsh stores had a similar deal going on when I moved to Indy. Really far over priced. As an example, a 6 pack of carbonated water that I would buy at the everyday price of 2.50 at Target, and the sale price of 1.99, was everyday priced at Marsh as 3.89! Figure in over a dollar price hike on every single thing that you buy, and it’s a “no brainer” to go somewhere else.

    Problem for me, is that Kroger “ain’t all that” either. Pretty depressing deli counter compared to the places I was used to shopping in Milwaukee and Chicago, and a lot of food selections with just aren’t very healthy. The dirty little secret I’ve learned from being in retail advertising for 40 years, is basically when a new store opens, they have an “opening matrix” of whatever products they are selling, and then within a year, they’ll be carrying what they can sell in the area you’re in. If you’re surrounded by people eating sugared catfish and donuts, eventually that what the shelf-space is going to be featuring, and we all know that Indiana ranks near the bottom for physical health out of all the states! God help us all!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I didn’t know there was a Kohl’s grocery!

      And what I experienced at the Walmart Neighborhood Market that opened near my house matches what you say: what they offered initially shifted over time to what people here buy.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Not only that, but all owned before the split, by Senator Herb Kohl (Wis-Dem) extended family!

    2. davidvanilla Avatar

      It is all about shelf-space turnover and the specialty items (meaning the stuff you really want) simply isn’t available in some markets.

  4. davidvanilla Avatar

    Too many had moved on– except where it was the only game in town. At least ours will continue under new ownership.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My son works at a Marsh, and his will continue under new ownership, too. Except all the staff is fired when the store closes, and if they want to work for the new owner, they can apply for jobs there.

      1. davidvanilla Avatar

        My cashier told me this morning that after 42 years she plans to “retire” today Interrupted my check-out to tell her manager as much.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I stopped at the Marsh nearest me for a few things today. The woman who checked me out has been working at that store as long as I’ve been visiting it, which is going on 23 years now. I mentioned that to her and she said yes, she had worked there 25 years. She looked like she wanted to cry.

  5. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    Pretty soon, we’ll all be ordering our groceries from Amazon’s Whole Foods and having them delivered by drones. :-)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve always liked going to the grocery store. Once in a while, when time is short, I’ll have Instacart do my shopping for me. It’s nice and all, but I miss the experience of browsing the aisles. Especially at Marsh, which had the best grocery meat counter in town. I’d always see what was on sale and buy stuff to put in the freezer.

  6. The Trailhead Avatar

    I tend to agree with your analysis. The Marsh store “in the round” at Trader’s Point was near my house, but I found it oddly difficult to navigate, and not at all intuitive. My mother loved it, though, as did my father-in-law when he visits from Santa Fe. But the Kroger is closer and much, much cheaper. It is a bit sad to see an Indiana institution disappear, but as you say, so goes the market.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I used to work near the Traders Point Marsh. It was an odd design, to be sure. I didn’t do weekly shopping there, but would pop in on the way home for a thing or two. I came to know the places where those things were and went right to them.

      I don’t mind Kroger except for their meat department. Seems like most of what they carry contains “X% of a solution,” and that stuff always makes me woozy. No thanks. But my son worked there for a few months, and linked my Kroger Plus card to his employee discount. Another friend of mine worked for Kroger in IT for many years and says that they do periodic sweeps of that for ex-employees, but it can be years between them. So I still get 10% off Kroger-branded products! Kind of fun.

      1. The Trailhead Avatar

        Sweet! That’s reason enough.

        In my experience, the best grocery store meat department in the city is at Fresh Market in Broad Ripple. Not particularly economical, however.

      2. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        The little Marsh at the Boone mall in Zionsville is actually being bought by Kroger. There’s a lot of old single people that have shopped there because they don’t want to go to the Meijer out on 65 and Whitestown Pkwy (too busy, too big)., but they really can’t afford it. I’m happy they now have a neighborhood “affordable” option. You’re right about the meat tho…sheesh…

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          My son, who works for Marsh (for now), says that management speculates that Kroger will open stores using a brand they own that runs higher-end. The locations Kroger bought all appear to me to support a higher-end store. We shall see!

  7. Dan Cluley Avatar
    Dan Cluley

    I don’t think Mid Michigan ever really had a local chain of that size. There were 4 or 5 chains of 3 to 12 stores, all of which have gradually disappeared over the last 15-20 years.

    Meijer started in West Michigan, and the first stores in Lansing opened almost 50 years ago, so in many ways they are the local chain here.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I remember seeing Meijer TV ads when I was a kid, when I’d visit my grandparents in Dowagiac, MI. They got Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo TV.

      Meijer came to Indianapolis in about 1993-4. I remember the one by me opening — it was picketed for months, maybe more than a year, because it was the first non-union grocery in town.

  8. Neil Avatar

    This brought back great memories of shopping at the Marsh in West Lafayette with my wife as newlyweds going to Purdue. We had fun shopping there, especially being young and in love. I’ll make sure to forward your goodbye to her, and then she and I will have a good memories conversation. Thanks, Jim!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Happy to have unlocked some good memories for you!

  9. Heide Avatar

    They’re tearing down the old Dayton’s flagship store in downtown Minneapolis as I type it and that, too, feels like the loss of an important part of our local identity. But it’s the way the world is going, isn’t it … and maybe in 20 years’ time we’ll be remembering Amazon and Walmart wistfully too.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What a shame. At least the facade of the old L.S. Ayres store here remains. I got to shop in it a time or two before it was gutted to make way for the Circle Centre Mall that’s in it and several neighboring buildings now.

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  11. Sam Avatar

    Jim, excellent post. Sorry to see another one go! Even here in New York and the suburbs, almost all the good old local stores are gone. I was sad when in 2014, my local mom & pop camera store went out of business.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m a little surprised to hear that. I would have figured that in NYC there was enough scale to support local stores.

      1. Sam Avatar

        There might still be some around but not many. Even when they were around, most people would go into the mom & pop camera stores to get advice, touch the cameras, then go to Best Buy to buy it! :-)

  12. Jerry Avatar

    Is one of those pictures the Marsh at 56th and Georgetown? A member of my high school lost his life in the parking lot his junior year, horsing around with friends, riding on the roof. Knew him since 1st grade. Sad day.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, it is. I’m sorry to hear about your friend.

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