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CHICAGO-The Pantry convenience-store chain has been buying out competitors over the last year and doesn’t plan to stop any time soon, said company executives yesterday here at the William Blair Annual Stock Growth Conference. The Sanford, NC-based chain, which operates about 1,400 stores mainly in the Southeast, is looking at acquisitions in the 20-store range.

Pantry is currently in the process of closing a deal on 23 units in Virginia from Angus I. Hines Inc. under the Sentry Food Mart banner. In April it completed the purchase of 53 Cowboys stores from D & D Oil Co. Inc.

“Acquisitions will continue to be our primary vehicle,” said Peter Sodini, the company’s president and CEO. “People are leaving this business, and they should be leaving this business.” Sodini explained that chains with 100 stores are less can’t survive because they will have trouble competing with larger players; therefore, they are ripe for acquisition.

Pantry will most likely keep its store purchases in the Southeast, but could look at other regions if the right deal came along, Sodini said. “It would have to be a large acquisition of 150 to 200 stores,” he said, but stressed that there is “ample opportunity to grow” in its own region.

Company executives are also looking to open more new stores, as well, and are talking to brokers about locations. The chain has only opened about three or four per year over the last few years, but Sodini said that Pantry can probably crank that number up to 15 to 20.

Inside stores, Pantry officials want to add more quick-serve restaurants, such as Subway, of which it currently has about 70 in its portfolio. “We think it’s important to get food into these stores,” Sodini said. The company is also beefing up its line of private-label merchandise, he said.

Pantry’s units are under the Cowboys, Kangaroo Express, Pantry, Golden Gallon, and Lil Champ Food Store banners. In the company’s Q2, the latest it reported, which ended March 31. During the quarter Pantry’s merchandise same-store sales jumped 6.5% from the same year-ago period. Revenues were $945.8 million, up 20.3%.

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