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1-on-1 With Philly Grocery Power Couple Jeff and Sandy Brown

WGB's April Endcap interview with Brown's Super Stores' operators

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Jeff and Sandy Brown, renowned in their hometown of Philadelphia for bringing full-service supermarkets to former food deserts, own and operate Brown’s Super Stores, which includes 11 ShopRite supermarkets and two Fresh Grocers.

Welcome to Endcap, Jeff and Sandy! Having known you both for many years and witnessing the remarkable things you’ve done in the communities your stores serve, associate development and the industry at large, I consider you to be a genuine grocery “power couple.” Please share a few things about what makes your bond so strong and unmistakably successful.

Browns: We’ve been married for 29 years and have raised four boys—that creates a lot of “togetherness,” which we bring with us into our business. To do that successfully, you need shared values and good communication, and we bring those important elements to our work. We share the same vision for our company and understand what it takes to be successful. We also recognize that we each have our own strengths and interests, and we divide responsibilities based on those abilities. And we really respect the role our professional management team plays in our success.

Among the many things your company has done that’s gained national attention is hiring former drug dealers and felons as part of your mission to help disadvantaged people turn their lives around. Jeff, you were quoted as saying, “Someone needs to lead the way.” Can you elaborate on what inspired the initiative, and how you have seen it influence the lives of those who have been touched by it?

JB: Operating stores in food deserts puts us in communities with challenges that include higher rates of poverty, unemployment and incarceration. The last one can be especially difficult to overcome because most businesses avoid hiring those who have served time in prison. That can result in multi-generational poverty, which is difficult to escape. During a town hall meeting we hosted several years ago for the opening of a new ShopRite, future customers challenged me to help them overcome this obstacle and create job opportunities for people with troubled pasts.

Based on this suggestion, we experimented with a few hires and realized the promising potential of this strategy. Today we have a decade of experience hiring people who have been able to turn their lives around and forge successful careers with us. We have a great interview and vetting process and a lot of experience in this area. For me, the greatest reward is seeing a person who has been written off by society blossom into a department or store manager. They’re able to start a family, contribute to their community and become financially successful. As leaders in the food industry, we are in a unique position to effect positive change that government and nonprofits have been unable to yield on their own.

You’ve been vocal opponents of the Philadelphia Beverage Tax, which was implemented on Jan. 1, 2017, and which imposes a 1.5 cent-per-ounce tax on all sweetened beverages. What’s the latest with this burdensome mandate?

JB: Over the first 12 months of the tax, our six city ShopRite supermarkets have lost over $41 million in sales. While the tax has led to beverage sale losses of more than 50%, the majority of loss is on non-beverage items such as grocery staples and fresh produce. Due to the loss in store sales, we had to eliminate over 200 positions, and a number of our city stores are now unprofitable. The devastating effects of the beverage tax also forced us to terminate plans for new city locations and cancel any new significant capital projects in the city.

The hardest-hit stores are the locations closest to the border of the suburbs, which do not have any beverage tax and where city residents now migrate to buy their groceries—and less affluent customers who don’t have the money to pay the tax are often impacted the most. This beverage tax, the largest of its kind in the nation, has turned the already difficult challenge of eliminating food deserts into a nearly impossible one. With significant reductions in sales, wage, gross receipts and income taxes, I also question whether this tax is sustainable. There are definitely less jobs, less opportunity and less investment in the city because of this tax.

As part of your role as director of branding, PR and social media, Sandy, what is the best part of your job these days?

SB: The best part of my job is taking a supermarket and turning it into a destination location where people enjoy shopping. I love my role designing stores and creating a unique atmosphere that makes our customers feel comfortable and enhances the shopping experience. We’ve done that by featuring more fresh prepared foods and incorporating wine cellars, beer gardens, cafes and even live music in our stores. I also enjoy using social media platforms (each one of our stores has its own Facebook page) to promote our special offerings and engage with our ShopRite and Fresh Grocer customers.

What was the best part of the underdog Eagles’ Super Bowl win, and has the thrill of victory worn off yet?

JB: The Eagles winning the Super Bowl was so amazing, and you could feel the excitement the minute you walked into our ShopRite and the Fresh Grocer stores. It created tremendous bonding and happiness across the city. And no, the thrill has not worn off!

Lightning Round

How did you meet?

SB: On the boardwalk at the south Jersey Shore. We were talking on the boardwalk and Jeff loved that I knew about the supermarket business, since I worked for consumer goods companies. He was so excited when I asked him about his sales per square foot! He was the most interesting, intelligent and adorable person I had ever met. We were married one year later!

Jeff, what is the trait you most admire about Sandy?

Sandy is open to jumping into any project and working as hard and as long as it takes to get it done. She truly cares about our associates and customers and takes it personally that our business continues to improve for everyone. She often focuses on behind-the-scenes projects, and she’s great at taking our ideas and turning them into reality in our stores.

Sandy, what is the trait you least like about Jeff?

Jeff has so many wonderful qualities, especially how kind and caring he is to everyone in his life. But he’s often so busy that he’s not always mindful of his own health and well-being. I would love for him to exercise more and embrace a healthier lifestyle. I want to see him healthy, so we can live a long life together! 

Outside of work, what is your favorite way to spend time?

JB: We love spending time in Philadelphia with friends and our kids when they are here with us. Sandy enjoys being active and following an exercise regimen, and I love working with community leaders and neighborhood groups to help them overcome their challenges.

What’s on your bucket list?

SB: We enjoy traveling to learn about different cultures and their food. We have been inspired by things we have seen over the years and hope to continue to bring new ideas to our supermarkets in the future.

Illustration by Olivier Balez

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