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BUFFALO, NY-Morgan Stanley Private Equity has purchased 71 grocery stores from Netherlands-based Ahold for $310 million. The bulk of the stores represent the remaining Tops Markets chain, while the purchase also includes four Martins Super Food Stores, with all the properties located in New York and northwestern Pennsylvania.

The Tops company was founded as a neighborhood grocery chain in the early 1960s in Buffalo, NY. Ahold purchased the company in 1991, but sold off its northeast Ohio stores last year, and had divested subsidiaries Wilson Farms and Sugarcreek in 2005. One Tops Market store at 1854 Empire Blvd. in Webster, NY was the only store that was not part of the sales agreement due to the termination of its lease.

According to a statement by Tops, Morgan Stanley will keep many employees and the store name. Max Henderson, EVP and general manager of the company, said he plans to leave the western New York area. “I personally will be working through a transition period and will then be leaving the business to pursue other career opportunities,” he said in the statement. The divestment of Tops is part of Ahold’s strategic review. An Ahold spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Morgan Stanley plans to bring back Frank Curci, former CEO of Tops from 2000 to 2003, to serve on the Board of Directors and lead the transition team during the coming months, the company said in its own statement. He most recently served as COO of Alabama-based Southern Family markets. Also, all merchandising, information technology and finance functions are expected to be consolidated in the Buffalo area over time.

A source close to the deal tells GlobeSt.com that Morgan Stanley targeted Tops because it is a well-regarded grocery chain with a loyal customer base. “The long-term stability of the supermarket industry, withstanding the current economic swing, makes it a good investment,” says the source.

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