JACKSONVILLE, FL-Winn-Dixie Stores Inc., Florida’s largest grocer and the sixth largest supermarket chain in the United States, has recovered from dismal 2000 performances and posted gross first-quarter 2002 profit of $39.4 million.

As a percentage of sales, that number was 26.6% above the comparable 2001 period. The store’s first fiscal quarter ended Sept. 19.

Net earnings amounted to $22.4 million or 16 cents per diluted shares versus $9.4 milion or seven cents per diluted share last year at this time.

Earnings before income taxes were $36.4 million compared to $15.3 million in the previous year.

The 70-year-old food-servicing company increased its total leased space among 1,153 stores by 6.1% to 51.1 million sf, or an average 44,319 sf per store.

Rent expense on operating leases was $82.2 million versus $71.3 million last year. Winn-Dixie president/CEO Al Rowland attributes the increased rent to the acquisition of nine Gooding’s Supermarkets in Orlando and 68 Jitney Jungle stores in the second and third quarters of fiscal 2001.

Winn-Dixie operates 30 stores in Orange County; 11 in Seminole County; nine in Lake County; and six in Seminole County.

First-quarter sales were $3 billion, a 4% increase from $13.2 million in first quarter 2001. Identical store sales, however, decreased 5.4% for the quarter.

In a prepared statement, Rowland credits the company’s fiscal turnaround to Winn-Dixie’s year-long restructuring and retrofitting of existing profitable stores and the elimination of non-profitable properties throughout the state. He anticipates the company’s new “Real Deal” marketing campaign, unveiled Oct. 3, will generate further customer count increases, brand awareness and market share.

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