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2024 Leadership Award Winner for Outstanding Buyer: Paul Abbott, Giant Eagle

When Paul Abbott joined Giant Eagle as a bagger two weeks after his 16th birthday, he had no idea that he would work at the Pittsburgh-based grocer for 34+ years and be honored with the 2024 Specialty Food Association Leadership Award for Outstanding Buyer.

“I had just received my driver’s license and needed money for gas and insurance,” the 50-year-old Abbott said. Moving from bagger to store leader over his first 21 years at the chain, Abbott developed a love for food and a passion for bringing the best foods from around the world and around the corner to Giant Eagle customers.

It was a natural fit for Abbott to take leadership when Giant Eagle opened its first two Market District stores in 2006. “We saw the bifurcation of food retailing,” said Abbott, currently senior director for Market District. “Value-oriented stores such as Walmart were doing well and so were specialty retailers like Whole Foods. The executive team decided that Giant Eagle needed another banner.”

The third Market District opened in 2009 and is still thought of as the “flagship” of the banner. At 146,000 square feet, it is a behemoth, combining grocery, extensive perishables, specialty foods, health/beauty/nutrition, housewares, and general merchandise. There was an aging facility for cheese, hydroponic growing of bibb lettuce, basil, and other greens, and other over-the-top touches. “There was a lot of ‘wow’ factor,” said Abbott. “We raised the bar and learned what worked and what did not.”

On to Ohio

Market District was a differentiating format as Giant Eagle expanded its footprint into Ohio. Abbott said, “Giant Eagle had a legacy in Pittsburgh as a leading supermarket since 1931. We were not well-known in Ohio.”

There are currently 23 Market District stores, with 15 in Ohio, seven in Pennsylvania, and one in Indiana. They average approximately 75,000 SKUs, with 18 percent of sales in specialty and natural foods (double the specialty/natural food sales in conventional Giant Eagle markets). Most are smaller than the flagship opened in 2009 yet still offer a food lovers’ shopping experience.

The Market District leadership team consists of 20, including business development managers, aka buyers. They seek out products at the Winter and Summer Fancy Food Shows and other trade shows. “We are all super aware of what is trending in the food world, both at retail and when we go out to eat,” said Abbott.

As Market District has grown in size and influence, distributors and brokers have also brought innovative foods to the buying team. “Our brokers think like a team member,” said Abbott.

The most challenging part of the puzzle was bringing in local producers. “We needed to take a leadership position to make local important by helping to build and sustain the economic fabric of the local food system,” said Abbott. This involved solving complex distribution challenges through a hyper-local distributer network that is easy for small suppliers and farmers to do business in the region with a pre-defined pathway for growth over time.

Market District helped develop a system that aggregates small local producers providing fresh dairy, local honey, and other products. Today, Market District stores carry hundreds of local products that have taken thousands of road miles off the food customers buy.

Market District has certified fishmongers, cheesemongers, wine and beer experts, in-store meat cutters, bakers, and certified decorators, as well as dedicated culinary teams for prepared foods. It is a leader in the industry and has brought the best of specialty and natural foods to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana under Abbott’s leadership and support from the corporate executive team.

Related: 2024 Leadership Award Winner for Emerging Leader: Anna Hammond, Matriark Foods2024 Leadership Award Winner for Vision: Diego Silva, Avatar Natural Foods