Haggen grocery chain making itself at home in Orange County

<i>This post has been corrected, as noted below</i>

The cult of Haggen fanatics is about to grow bigger.

The 82-year-old Bellingham, Wash.-based grocery chain said in December that it had acquired 146 stores from Albertsons and Safeway before their merger, including an Albertsons in Corona del Mar, a Pavilions in Irvine and nine other stores in Orange County. The first store to be converted will be an Albertsons on South Coast Highway in Laguna Beach.

The acquisitions will expand Haggen from 18 stores with 16 pharmacies in the Pacific Northwest to 164 stores with 106 pharmacies in the West. The purchase was part of anti-monopoly requirements related to the Albertsons-Safeway merger.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to get the fantastic properties in such a dynamic market like Orange County,” said Bill Shaner, Haggen’s chief executive for the Pacific Southwest division. “We’re thrilled to be there.”

The Haggen team, led by Shaner and John Clougher, chief executive of Haggen Pacific Northwest, has outlined its plans to convert the stores.

The 83 stores in California will be converted from March to May. The amount of time needed to complete the conversion will vary store to store.

“This is a journey for us to do as much as we can to make improvements through 2015,” Shaner said. “Expect to see a focus on fresh products.”

The grocer has supported regional farms, ranches and fisheries and will offer a bakery, a delicatessen and organic, gluten-free and specialty items.

“We have an assortment of healthy options, but we’re not just a ‘natural’ store,” Shaner said. “We’ll still have family favorites like Cheetos, Snickers bars and Tide detergent and all the brands people love. We just want to protect the best of what Albertsons and Safeway does.”

Haggen’s current workforce of 2,000 employees will expand to more than 10,000. As the stores are transformed into the Haggen brand, existing Albertsons, Safeway, Pavilions and Vons employees will be allowed to keep their union contracts and become Haggen employees. Haggen plans to retain the current store management teams.

Stacey King, a Laguna Beach resident, said, “I go to Albertsons every day for quick things, but with this new grocery store, I’ll come here more often.”

Haggen was founded by Ben and Dorothy Haggen and Doug Clark during the Depression with $1,100. The Haggens’ son, Rick Haggen, is still a part owner of the company. Comvest Group purchased the majority shares of the company in 2011.

[For the record, 4:25 p.m. March 5: An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported the grocery store would partner with five local nonprofits, donating $1,000 to a single organization on the first day a store opens and 2% of sales to four additional organizations on four consecutive Saturdays. The Haggen Pacific Northwest division, which includes Washington and Oregon, is making the donations and the Pacific Southwest division is finalizing the details of its corporate giving.]