The 2020 class of Remarkable Independents hits all demographics of the independent grocery marketplace and highlights what’s best in the industry.
It’s no secret that it’s a tough world out there for the independent grocer. More retailers than ever are selling food, from dollar to home improvement stores. However, the 17 Remarkable Independents—and Winsight Grocery Business’ first Independent Icon—showcased offer great insight in what it takes to succeed in today’s environment.
The profiles of each of our 2020 indie honorees offer a glimpse of what makes each unique and include some of the methods they are deploying to make their stores stand out in a crowded marketplace. Each has a story to tell and lessons that others can learn from. For the third year, the Remarkable Independents were chosen from nominations submitted individually by store owners/management, wholesalers/distributors and allied supply-chain partners in the following categories: Independent Icon, Category Excellence, In-Store Experience, Masterful Marketing and Digital Engagement.
The 2020 class of Remarkable Independents will be formally recognized at a celebratory reception in their honor Feb. 24 at the NGA Show in San Diego.
Sendik’s Food Market
Sendik’s Food Market, owned by the Balistreri family and operating 17 stores in the Milwaukee area, recently expanded beyond food by incorporating a home goods department within its newly remodeled two-story location at The Corners in Brookfield.
On the main level of the shopping center, the store features a 7,000-square-foot Sendik’s Home store. The department showcases carefully-curated clothing selections, an in-store dressing room, an expansive floral shop, international gourmet food selections and an array of brand-name kitchen products. A mezzanine between the home store and the ground-level grocery store acts as a gathering place for customers with a bar and seating area.
“Our renovated store is so much more than a grocery store. It’s a bistro, home and clothing store, floral shop and, most importantly, community gathering space all in one,” says co-owner Ted Balistreri.
Gelson’s has made a name for itself throughout Southern California, operating 27 stores in the greater Los Angeles and San Diego metro markets. The goal of the stores is to provide customers the same experience they would find in top restaurants. In addition to offering locally sourced products—often from the stores’ own backyards—the company is committed to customer service.
“Our service is what is most special about Gelson’s, and I am proudest of our people,” says President Rob McDougall. “I consider it a true blessing to be able to serve in a company whose mission is to make each trip perfect for our customers, with associates who care and inquire about the families of our shoppers and who figure out how to say ‘Yes’ to our loyal shoppers to make customers’ trips stress-free. It makes me proud when a customer tells me they choose their next home location based on proximity to a Gelson’s.”
Lou’s Thrifty Way Market
Lou’s Thrifty Way Market thrives in a town of 24,000 by offering fresh, quality produce, farm-fresh dairy, home delivery and carry-out service as well as—and perhaps most importantly—fresh meat at fair prices sold by a knowledgeable team. The seasoned team, which includes five meat cutters, excels in customer service. The meat cases are well-merchandised and offer variety, quality and freshness. Nothing is prepackaged, says owner Mike Brtek. “We cut every steak, every roast. We grind hamburger five times a day,” he says.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on our meat and produce, especially since there’s so much duplication in the grocery business,” Brtek says. “About 75% of my employees graduated from high school within 20 miles of Norfolk. It’s just that whole customer service—us knowing our customers.”
Salt Lake City
Macey’s, a banner of Associated Retail Operations, a trading arm of Associated Wholesale Grocers, operates 15 stores in Utah and has become well-known for its Kong Kone, a soft-serve ice cream cone that is nearly 1 foot high. But that is only a small part of what draws customers to Macey’s.
“From our legendary soft-serve ice cream to large fleets of kid carts, we give a personal touch only an independent grocer can offer,” says Darin Peirce, VP of Associated Retail Operations. “We love serving our community by offering the best quality products at affordable prices.”
The stores’ “Happy Shopping” tag line affects all aspects of operations. It’s the little things that add up to a great shopping experience, Peirce says, and things such as knowing customers’ names or handing children stickers when they’re shopping with parents gives that “personal touch—a meaningful emotional connection.”
Red’s Hometown Market
Spring Grove, Minn.
Change in grocery is inevitable, but the ability to evolve and meet those changes is what has helped Red’s Hometown Market continue to thrive in Spring Grove, Minn. Branding has helped, says owner Patrick Longmire Sr.
In addition to its branded meatball offering, The Meatball King, the family started a food truck, Fat Pat’s BBQ, specializing in Texas-style barbecue. The store also features Jo’s Coffee House, which opened this past year, and Sadie’s Natural Pet, a pet boutique within the store that sells natural pet food and is named after a beloved family dog that had recently passed away.
“I always felt I didn’t give her the right food to begin with,” Longmire says. “After she died, I started looking at: How could we do this, bring this into the store? We try to provide the big-city things that you typically can’t get outside the city.”
Barons Market, with eight—soon to be nine—locations in the greater San Diego area, is all about a 10-minute shop and an “engaging, exciting, taste bud-tempting shopping experience,” says SVP Rachel Shemirani. An innovative store design, a carefully curated product selection that is determined by weekly food panel meetings and interactive stations such as an olive oil and balsamic vinegar bar and squeeze-your-own orange juice station all help make grocery shopping quick, easy and fun for customers.
A large part of that environment comes from the company’s employees. “In the gig economy, everyone’s kind of freaking out trying to get good help,” Shemirani says. “Something that has been the core to our values is our employees and spending the time, money, energy and interest in actually teaching our employees. Focus on your employees and the customers will be happy, because they can sense that when they’re shopping in your store.”
“I get asked a lot about some of the secrets of success, and I think the first thing is to be passionate about what you’re doing,” says Jim “Jimbo” Someck, founder of Jimbo’s, which operates five natural food stores in the San Diego area. (Learn more about his newest store.) “You’ve got to be passionate about what you’re doing and feel like this is what you want to do because you’re going to hit upon many obstacles, and it’s primarily going to be your passion that pushes you through.”
His company is passionate about being natural, with ingredient standards that are second to none, he says. The stores’ extensive produce departments are 100% organic. “We made the commitment to organic,” he says. That commitment is expanding beyond the produce department to include the bulk foods selection and foodservice, where about 95% of the ingredients are organic.
Terre Haute, Ind.
It takes something special to survive 125 years in the grocery industry, and Baesler’s Market has hit that milestone by offering friendly, authentic hometown service and fresh, superior-quality products. It is the oldest family-owned grocery store in Indiana.
Even amid intense competition, “there’s some advantage to being local,” says owner Bob Baesler. “I’m a baby boomer; we prefer local if everything else is equal. I think with millennials, they will pick local … knowing that maybe prices might be a little higher or things don’t have to be equal, but they will still pick local.”
Baesler says giving back to the community, more so than advertising, has helped the business succeed. “We support everybody,” he says.
Carlie C. “Mack” McLamb Jr., owner of Carlie C's IGA in Dunn, N.C., is committed to providing a customer-first approach in all 25 of his locations and instilling that in his more than 1,500 employees. “Our primary purpose is to love, bless and serve the communities we’re in,” McLamb says.
As a large independent operator, keeping that feeling of camaraderie and “we’re all in this together” can be difficult, so McLamb focuses a lot on company culture. He took the idea of love from the new Hometown Proud IGA logo and met with employees in every store to find out what love means when it comes to grocery stores. The answer: giving customers your undivided attention. Employees should not be talking about things going on outside the store—or even thinking about them—but instead be solely focused on the customer’s needs, especially when the customer is in front of the employee.
Newport Avenue Market
Newport Avenue Market’s personality is felt in everything from the colorful murals on the outside of the store to the purple cow overlooking the cheese department. But even before customers get to the store, Bend, Ore.-based Newport Avenue Market uses its marketing to clue customers in to what to expect from a store with a president and CEO, Lauren Johnson, whose secondary title is leader of the pack (vrrrooom!).
“Our go-to-market strategy is be first, best or different,” Johnson says. “That we sell what people want to buy … we sell milk and bananas and have fun doing it.” The strategy fits in with a town that is fun and funky in and of itself.
Part of that fun comes from the buy-in of the employee-owners, who are food experts and help support a shopping experience that’s “fun, fresh and totally delish.”
At the heart of all independent grocery stores is the community it serves. Blanton’s IGA, Packwood, Wash., has remained the town’s only full-service grocery store, even as the town has seen significant changes to the industries that support it. An annual customer appreciation breakfast—free of charge for anyone, whether resident or tourist—demonstrates how much owners Hal and Tracey Blanton love giving back to the community. The store’s motto says it all: “Blanton’s is welcoming. We serve our community offering food choices and services with hometown pride in a friendly, caring environment.”
“Because of our remote location, we offer unique, old-fashioned customer service,” says GM Jamie Deering. “Our company culture is constantly and consistently looking for ways to fulfill our mission and the vision to be the best place to work and shop. It’s impossible to be involved in anything ‘Packwood’ without bumping into [Hal and Tracey] serving food or donating gifts or simply showing up.”
“There’s a huge shift right now where customers want to have ownership,” says Patrick Ptacek, manager of Ptacek’s IGA, Prescott, Wis. “They want to go back and have that ‘My so and so’— my butcher, my whatever. We can provide that.”
Part of that comes from being able to connect with customers, and Ptacek’s excels at that, especially on social media. The Facebook posts are often callouts to staff and the culture of Wisconsin. A recent one read: “Lois made the Reubens with extra love today. She also whipped up some of Raph’s homemade chicken wings and brats.” Others often include links to local events. “We have a ridiculous relationship with the community,” Ptacek says. “There’s myself and five siblings and our spouses. Every one of these owners is involved in something. If you think of us as a tree, our roots are very deep and they are very, very spread out and dispersed.”
Main Street Market Piggly Wiggly
For many independents, the heart of being a locally owned business is being able to spread the wealth to other locally owned producers and manufacturers. And Tegan Krueger, co-owner of Main Street Market Piggly Wiggly in Lodi, Wis., is bringing that relationship to life in a new video series, “For the Love of Local.” In the video series, she interviews other local business owners about what they do to help her customers realize the number of local products available in the store and to build a relationship with these local vendors. Locally sourced products range from beer and wine to cheese and meat.
Being the connector in the community is a natural outgrowth of a grocery store owner. “We connect with everyone,” Krueger says. “We are honored when our customers choose to shop with us, and have a feeling of pure joy when our staff works with customers to make them happy.”
Choice Market, which opened its first hybrid convenience, grocery and restaurant location in 2017, is already planning a third location that will open later this year. “Our model and the hybrid approach between prepared foods and grocery convenience items is really where we want to differentiate ourselves,” says Mike Fogarty, founder and CEO. “Creating an ecosystem that’s omnichannel is quintessential to that goal.”
The stores’ primary customer is an urban millennial. “They’re digitally enabled, they value health, they value convenience,” he says. “We want to create a platform and a customer experience that aligns to their needs.” Choice is rolling out a new digital platform that combines all components of the business—website, app and delivery—for a seamless integration for the customer. They can order both groceries and prepared foods for delivery within 45 minutes, similar to current foodservice delivery options but a bit quicker than traditional grocery delivery.
In its 60 years, Rouses Market has grown from a single location in Houma, La., to 65 stores in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi and more than 6,700 employees. CEO Donny Rouse is the third generation of the family to oversee the business and has no plans to slow growth. In the past year, Rouses has acquired two new stores and opened four more, with several more under construction, in addition to opening a new company headquarters.
Such rapid growth often requires investment in back-end technologies as well, and Rouses recently deployed a platform to help reduce losses related to returns fraud, vendor visits and routine operations. In the pilot test in five stores over five weeks, merchandise returns decreased 36%, which more than paid for the system.
Longo’s has continuously evolved with its customer base, but to continue to provide exceptional in-store service, it needed a platform that could provide data and analytics to improve decision-making in the supply chain to help ensure the freshness of perishables. With the use of an artificial intelligence-powered solution, the freshest products are always available on the shelf. This becomes critically important as Longo’s continues to make a commitment to sourcing locally produced items, which helps reduce the environmental footprint of its more than 35 stores.
Remaining innovative is a key tenet to Longo’s success. “We continue to operate and live by our family standards, which guide us in every decision we make as a company,” says Alex Green, VP of marketing. “We only offer our customers what we would serve to our own families.”
Sprankle’s Neighborhood Market
It’s now easier than ever to reach customers directly, and Sprankle’s Neighborhood Market, with two stores in Leechburg and Kittanning, Pa., uses Facebook to its best advantage. The company’s Facebook posts reach more than 80,000 people per week and receive more than 23,000 reactions per week—that’s more than twice the reach of the print ad. The posts help draw customers from outside the typical trading area; some drive from 25 miles away to shop the stores. The posts have driven real results: Overall store sales in the newly remodeled Leechburg store went up 16% in sales, and sales in Kittanning were up 4%.
“My brother and I create all the posts, and we are often the directors and actors in any videos we post,” says Ryan Sprankle, who owns the stores with brother Doug and father Randy. “We focus on building brand awareness through promotion of events, community outreach, giveaways and games.”