Yes, they actually churn and compound their own butter at Harvest Market—it’s one of the few grocery stores in America where you’ll find a “microchurnery” operating in full view of shoppers.
But to Rich Niemann Jr., the churning is not the half of it.
“The key isn’t the process of churning butter, it’s the sweet cream that starts that process, which comes from a small family farm in central Illinois called Kilgus Farmstead. That’s the story,” says Niemann, president and CEO of Niemann Foods Inc.
“It’s unique to churn butter, but what we want to show is: Where does the sweet cream come from, and what happens to the products as you churn it?” he says. “The buttermilk goes into the biscuits we make in the bakery and serve in the restaurant. That’s how the circle happens in the store.”
Like the butter, the biscuits and the Farmhouse restaurant that accompanies them, Harvest Market is a concept made from scratch by local producers and families. The store opened two years ago in Champaign, Ill., as a means of exploring and redefining what it means to be a food retailer in an era defined by foodie culture, while also tapping into the underlying sense of sacrifice, wholesomeness, craft and expertise associated with the producers and makers behind what it sells. That’s an emotional connection with deep roots in Illinois, and it gives Harvest Market its unique perspective.
“This is not a marketing campaign for farm-to-fork,” Niemann says. The product selection reflects decades of relationships with producers and his own family’s experience raising cattle, he says. “This is a concept built around connecting people back to the land.”
In that sense, he says, Harvest Market isn’t a store as much as a mission, and one that shoppers intuitively understand when they enter.
“We had an understanding that the business is changing dramatically, and the old model wasn’t going to take us where the business was going,” says Niemann, whose family-run and employee-owned company operates a variety of concepts in the Midwest, from hardware and lumber stores to convenience stores, discount stores and conventional supermarkets under the County Market brand. The latter is the closest ascendant of the new store, but a distant cousin nonetheless, Niemann insists.
Los Angeles-based design and strategy firm Shook Kelley helped Niemann executives arrive at the concept. Founding partner Kevin Kelley took cues directly from the Niemann family, whose cattle herd now produces meat sold at the store.
“I like to try to find a way to get a leader’s personal side in the business, because that way they’ll believe it: They’ll do it in their sleep. They’ll do it their free time,” Kelley says. “Rich was so excited about grocery, but what really excited him was ranching and farming and agriculture. His face would light up, and his body language would show it.”
The emotional connection came into focus when Kelley played a recording of Paul Harvey’s famous “God made a farmer” broadcast during a planning meeting and Niemann’s executives teared up.
Two years into its life, Harvest Market is in constant evolution, Niemann says, describing the longest learning curve, which he associated with the on-site Farmhouse restaurant. But with shoppers tending to linger considerably longer and buy a wider variety of fresh goods than in the company’s typical units, business has been strong enough to proceed with plans for a second Harvest Market unit.
“Our store team is very creative, very independent and diverse, and that’s what makes it work,” Niemann says. “They have the authority and the ability to make changes happen when they’re needed. One of the interesting things that we’ve done there is our normal supervisory staff does not call on this store. It’s not that they’re not talented or have a desire to be there, but that it will very quickly melt into a typical store if it’s allowed to happen.”