If the early crowds at Lucky’s Market are any indicator, going to a new grocery store is entertainment on a par with, if not the Ohio State game, at least a pretty good hockey game or the Ark’s annual folk festival. The parking lot of the former South Industrial Kroger was jammed on opening day, February 24. For several days afterwards, Facebook posts advised parking across the street at CVS or Colonial Lanes.

Company CEO Bo Sharon was in town from the home office in Colorado on opening day. When red-haired, freckle-faced Sharon, thirty-five, opened Lucky’s Market in Boulder in 2003, it was already a third career for him. His first was child actor, beginning in 1983 playing the son of Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) on Happy Days, and over the next few decades he appeared in dozens of commercials, TV shows, and movies. Somewhere between the acting career and 2003 he went to culinary school, where he met his wife, Trish.

What does Lucky’s add to Ann Arbor’s increasingly segmented and nuanced grocery business? That’s what brought curious customers from all over town, though the generous free samples of bacon and sturdy reusable grocery bags given away at checkout didn’t hurt. “We were local before it was cool,” Sharon announced as he started a media tour. Ushering a group of reporters into the produce department, he passed out fresh-squeezed juice. Lucky’s, he says, is all about bringing more healthy fruits and vegetables into the daily diet–Lucky’s are mostly organic and reasonably priced.

Next on the tour, the “alt dairy” section (soy milk and so forth), bigger than the real dairy section. A Class C liquor license is in the works so “you can sip a beer while you shop.” A large bulk food section is headed up by grind-your-own nut butter machines, one fed by an irresistibly decadent mix of peanuts and chocolate chunks. Customers could load up on overflowing pans of house-cured bacon, which also shows up in a lot of Lucky’s prepared foods, even atop a maple-iced long john in the donut case.

Where do donuts, chocolate, and bacon fit into that healthy-veggie vision? Lucky’s has organic food at affordable prices, Sharon said, “but if grandma’s recipe calls for Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup,” they have that, too. Lucky’s aspires to be the kind of place where families shop together and the staff watches people’s kids grow up. (And why not? It already happened here once, when it was Kroger.) And above all, Sharon said, Lucky’s will make shopping for healthful, organic food a comfortable experience, “where you don’t get judged. You know how in a lot of stores you get sized up by what you wear?”

“Really?” a reporter asked. “This is Burns Park. I’m not sure people around here are exactly afraid of organic food.” Unfazed, Sharon seemed to file away the information that the “we don’t judge” bit may come across as a tad patronizing. Lucky’s is on an ambitious eight-state expansion into the “heartland,” as it likes to call the Midwest, so he’ll be giving this speech often.

Sharon, his wife, Trish, and Patrick Gilliland are the principals of the company–but you don’t open so many stores so fast with what you’re making on organic kale and bacon-topped long johns. Where’s the money coming from? Lucky’s website prominently features the federal “EB-5” visa program. Currently popular with Chinese nationals seeking a hedge against potential trouble at home, EB-5 lets global investors acquire U.S. residency by putting $1 million into an American business. (Lucky’s spokesperson Krista Torvik says only that the company is “exploring” EB-5 investments.)

And, though Lucky’s prefers to spotlight its local artisanal brands and community give-back programs, it’s also a bare-knuckled corporate brawler. Lately, it’s been fighting a trademark infringement lawsuit for its friendly red-and-white name and logo and another about a store in Bozeman, Montana, that didn’t materialize. The Bozeman lawsuit also named Mike Gilliland, Patrick’s brother, a person that Lucky’s has gone out of its way to distance itself from. Both Gillilands have a long history of buying and flipping Colorado natural food stores, and lawsuits have plagued both of them. The brothers partnered in various real estate and grocery ventures until 2011, when Mike was arrested for some unsavory Internet activities. “Mike has no role or interest in the company,” Torvik clarifies. “Patrick focuses primarily on real estate and construction.”

Lucky’s Market, 1919 South Industrial, 368-9137. 7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. luckysmarket.com

Over on the west side, Robert Cantelon is expanding Arbor Farms into the space the Mattress and Futon Shoppe vacated last year: “You’ve got to do it if you want to stay in the game,” he says of the upgrade. “We’re putting a coffee shop and deli over there. We’ll have cafe seating, an espresso bar, a salad bar, expanded deli selections.” The intervening wall “will be coming out any day,” he predicted in late February, but mostly the construction will happen at night, with minimum pain for everyone. The rest of the store will be getting an update too. “We’ll be bringing the store into the twenty-first century, doing it over in modern colors.” He declines to say what those modern colors are, but hints that they are “warm.”

Cantelon, who is co-owner with Arbor Farms’ founder Leo Fox, says, “Ann Arbor has about twice as many grocery stores as it needs.” He doesn’t expect to be much affected by Lucky’s opening, but he had his own season in hell several years ago when Plum Market opened a mile north, and Whole Foods at Cranbrook Village a mile south, and Meijer on Jackson upgraded its groceries. (Aldi and GFS also opened nearby stores, though their competition was much less direct.)

Which prompts the question: if Ann Arbor has twice as many grocery stores as it needs, why did Lucky’s want to be here?

Cantelon is Ann Arbor hippie royalty. You wouldn’t know it to look at him today–in his corduroys, V-necked sweater, and neat haircut, he could be a financial planner on casual Friday–but in 1972 he started the legendary Sun Bakery, purveying whole foods long before that became a brand name. He also has an encyclopedic knowledge of grocery stores of all kinds. (Coincidentally, after the Sun Bakery closed he spent some years away from Ann Arbor, at one time managing an Alfalfa’s in Denver in the 1990s, where he brushed up against the Gillilands.)

“Every natural food store in the country wants to be in Ann Arbor,” Cantelon explains. “It’s an educated community with a lot of disposable income. If you want to build a chain, you want a store with an upscale demographic. It adds cachet to the brand. But you’ve got to have deep pockets to get into the Ann Arbor real estate market.”

He points out the strategic location of Lucky’s and without having been in it gives a spot-on prediction of what will be found there: “It’s another poor man’s Whole Foods spin-off, like Trader Joe’s. They’re going to offer lots of nuts and sugary dried fruit in bulk and a ton of cheap produce” in hopes of intercepting customers on their way to both Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. As for Lucky’s “local” claim, he’s amused. “If you say ‘local’ long enough, people will believe it. It’s not going to hurt me much, but you know who it will hurt? Produce Station and Morgan & York. What are they, chopped liver?”

Arbor Farms, 2103 W. Stadium, 996-8111. 8 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. arborfarms.com