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What lies ahead for Tops' Orchard Fresh concept?

Just five weeks after opening Orchard Fresh in 2013, Tops Markets was ready to expand its upscale gourmet food shop brand. Frank Curci, president and CEO at the time, called the store a "home run" and said the company was looking to the Northtowns to open a second location.

The plan had been to observe the Orchard Park store for six months before making any decisions on new stores. But the prototype did so well, expansion was fast-tracked.

So what happened?

As much as Tops saw the importance of organic, healthy and adventurous foods, Orchard Fresh's debut was closely followed by Trader Joe's and Whole Foods in Amherst, which target the same affluent demographic.

It also faced pressures from long-established natural food pioneer Wegmans. And Tops' own finances were steadily weakening, dragged down by a suffocating debt load that ultimately pushed the supermarket company into bankruptcy last year.

In the beginning, Tops had planned to put two to four Orchard Fresh stores in each major city in Tops' market area.

Not anymore.

Instead, as Tops remodels its stores, it has expanded its selection of organics as well as eco-friendly, gluten-free, vegan and prepared foods.

In the meantime, Orchard Fresh has evolved into a concept store, where Tops tries out new ideas. While the lone Orchard Fresh escaped a wave of store closings during Tops' bankruptcy reorganization, additional new stores under that banner are not likely, according to Curci.

"It's a lab for us," Curci said. "I don't know that we'll expand the concept, but we believe in it. We're looking at ways to bring elements of Orchard Fresh into our other stores as we do remodels."

Tops said it has learned a lot in its Orchard Fresh bakery. As a result, it has upped its game at Tops bakeries.

And there's something more to come, though Curci is tight-lipped as to what.

"We have some things that we're going to be looking at in the future that could combine all the good parts of Tops and all the good parts of Orchard Fresh and I can't say anything more than that," he said.

Plans will be revealed by the end of the year, Curci said.

Testing the upper limits of taste

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