Celebration of Independents
The retail food business is brutal. But the 15 grocers selected as WGB’s 2019 Remarkable Independents have emerged as formidable forces in an industry that’s become more complex and cutthroat than their forebearers ever could have imagined.
As depicted on the pages herein, there’s simply no mistaking the tenacity and grit demonstrated by this year’s installation of Remarkable Independents, who have emerged among the most influential grocers in the nation. As vibrant, vital threads in the fabrics of their communities, each of the grocery companies chosen for national recognition excel at many things, foremost being their demonstrated ways of enriching the communities they serve in countless ways while simultaneously pioneering inventive strategies to keep them relevant and distinctly local.
For the second year, Remarkable Independents were culled from nominations submitted individually by store owners/management; wholesalers/distributors; and allied supply chain partners, for above-and-beyond achievements in the following categories:
- In-Store Experience
- Masterful Merchandising
- Community Stewardship
- Digital Engagement
The 2019 class of Remarkable Independents will be formally recognized at a celebratory reception in their honor Feb. 25 at the NGA Show in San Diego.
In-Store Experience: Janssen’s Market, Greenville, Del.
Janssen’s Market is sometimes referred to as a “gourmet convenience store” by its management. It provides members of its suburban Wilmington, Del., community of Greenville with a go-to place to pick up hand-cut prime aged steak, washed rind cheese from France and local produce along with their dish soap.
Founded by Joseph Janssen Sr. in 1952 and now led by his children and grandchildren, Janssen’s sets itself apart from local competition by offering difficult-to-find products. Touting the slogan “Gourmet and Everyday,” Janssen’s has an in-store cafe that has become a community center, with many people meeting up for lunch or a drink at happy hour.
Third-generation owner Paula Janssen says her family’s store is a “special place” where some employees have been on board for more than a decade and new products are consistently being brought in so that customers “see something new every time they shop.”
Janssen leads her team with a simple philosophy predicated on her belief that independent grocers need to “leverage what they do best: connecting directly with the customer,” as well as being receptive and adapting quickly. But while doing both “will become increasingly more difficult as consolidations continue on the wholesale side and sourcing products becomes more difficult,” Janssen’s will stay the course by nurturing customer connections.
In-Store Experience: Jungle Jim’s International Market, Fairfield, Ohio
From its humble beginnings as a roadside produce stand 46 years ago to what’s since become an indisputable Remarkable Independent in every sense of the word, Jungle Jim’s International Market has fashioned the template for what every grocer has striven to deliver today: excellent food, crazy-beautiful merchandising, superlative service, unique products and an exemplary in-store experience. It’s not a stretch to call Jungle Jim’s founding patriarch, Jim Bonaminio, a living legend in the grocery business. His original “theme park of food” store in Fairfield, Ohio, has since grown to include a satellite location in Union Township, both near Cincinnati. Taking the foodservice experience one step further was the opening of the airport-themed Jungle Experience Center, or JXC, which employs state-of-the-art technology that allows the retailer to connect with business partners around the world. The grocer creates a food-rooted event destination for its shoppers by incorporating these connections into planned events such as its recent movie screening party dubbed the “Big Lebowski Blast,” as well as wine dinners and corporate events.
JXC Events Manager Jodi Taylor says the space gives Jungle Jim’s guests a place to “taste, learn and connect”; an example of this is its wine dinner series in which guests come in for a five-course gourmet “dinner by the bite” that they eat while tasting wines and taking a virtual tour of the featured winery. “Through the video conferencing system, they actually get to see where the wine is made and speak to representatives of the winery,” Taylor says. “What better way to enjoy a tasting?” The retailer also offers its unique Paradise Pavilion smoke-friendly, open-air bar to visitors of its Eastgate location, which features tempered air that helps it maintain a comfortable atmosphere even in the winter and also acts as an event space. Taylor says both spaces offer full event menus, which allows the retailer to see the event through “from start to finish,” which is another way it is “taking the ‘grocery store’ concept and showing guests that we are so much more.”
In-Store Experience: Uncle Giuseppe’s Marketplace, Farmingdale, N.Y.
East Coast Italian specialty grocer Uncle Giuseppe’s Marketplace has earned its reputation as not just a grocery shopping destination but also an interactive oasis for Italian-Americans and all-encompassing food lovers alike. The seven-store retailer, based in Farmingdale, N.Y., boasts an extensive selection of fresh products, gourmet imports and house-made prepared foods, including entrees, salads and side dishes, as well as a full array of conventional groceries. Its stores’ interior design oozes authentic visual charm, with Corinthian-style stone columns and intricate murals of the scenic country, while massive windows frame its pasta- and mozzarella-making rooms, providing shoppers a behind-the-scenes look at Uncle Giuseppe’s signature products, which are continuously prepared and hand-packaged throughout each day.
An expansive hot bar, sushi counter, pizza station, cafe and gelato bar provide countless fresh-made offerings for shoppers to grab and go or leisurely enjoy in-store at the social seating area. On weekends, the retailer is known to draw large crowds for live opera performances and informative sampling events.
In-Store Experience: PCC Community Markets, Seattle
Entering its 66th year, Seattle-based PCC Community Markets (PCC) is the nation’s largest community-owned food market and a haven for enthusiasts of fresh, organic, in-season, locally grown, raised and caught, and sustainably sourced food. With an active membership of more than 60,000 households, PCC operates 11 stores in the Puget Sound area. The co-op also plans to open new stores in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood in 2019 and Bellevue, Madison Valley and downtown Seattle in 2020.
Integral to PCC “is our community ownership by our members—not shareholders or private investors,” explains CEO Cate Hardy, which she says sets the stage perfectly for its independent excellence. “It allows us to stay true to our commitment to a triple bottom line of financial, environmental and social responsibility.
“It also means we’re truly local,” she continues, citing “deep, meaningful relationships we’ve been able to build with local producers.”
Hardy also takes profound pride in “advocacy around food policy and product standards. PCC has a long history of championing sustainably sourced food and products. Today, we have some of the highest standards in the nation, and our shoppers consistently tell us that they trust every item on our shelves. That trust is earned through decades of transparency, and we’re incredibly proud of the work our teams have done to continue this today.”
Masterful Merchandising: Trig’s/T.A. Solberg Co., Minocqua, Wis.
Northern Wisconsin-based Trig’s, a subsidiary of T.A. Solberg Co., has tailored each of its eight stores to meet the specific needs of the communities they serve. Taking a hands-on approach to merchandising, Trig’s owns a meat processing plant where it creates signature sausages and smoked offerings, and it develops its marketing resources in-house to align its expertise with the needs of its customer base. “Our guest experience keeps us relevant as a food retailer in 2019,” says company President Bob Jaskolski. “The dynamics of the industry as a whole are changing very quickly, making it vital for independents to be adaptable and innovative. As a smaller, independent retailer, it is important to compete with the giants of the world through education, training, product expertise and the in-store experience. Having associates who are committed to excellence keeps our guests coming back.”
Renowned as innovators known for quality products and a commitment to be first to market with new products, events and services, Jaskolski and his team are “passionate about innovation for our guests and the communities we serve. We allow our team to think outside the box to deliver unique guest experiences. As a result, you will see our associates do what other retailers will not.”
Masterful Merchandising: City Market, Burleson, Texas
Known as the “friendly store” in its hometown of Burleson, Texas, City Market woos its shoppers with dynamic in-store merchandising, particularly in its fresh departments. Store owner Kurt Jaeger has made it his mission to differentiate City Market’s stores from nearby grocery giants such as Walmart, Kroger Marketplace and H-E-B Plus. As such, he was an early adopter of online curbside pickup and nutrition tags as part of an effort to fulfill customer desires.
Additionally, Jaeger recently expanded space in the store’s fresh departments, which boast features such as custom meat cutting, a smokehouse and rotisserie, and added a seasonal selling space to bolster product assortment during holidays. The store also offers appealing fare such as house-made meals, Mother Shucker's homemade tamales and scratch-made bakery items. Reviews of City Market speak volumes about the store’s local appeal, one of which declares it to be the “best local grocery store in the metro area. Kurt has done a great job and is a pillar of the area; anyone that lives in Burleson should be shopping at this iconic store and enjoying an ice cream cone ... while getting great deals and the best meat in the area. No, I don’t work there, but I do service all major stores in the area, and this one stands head and shoulders over all the other[s].”
Masterful Merchandising: Dill’s Food City (IGA), Lavonia, Ga.
With two IGA stores in Lavonia and Royston, Ga., Dill’s Food City’s recently completed a $4.5 million remodel of its Lavonia store that demonstrates the grocer’s commitment to helping its customers live their best life with good food, meaningful convenience, valued services and a place to relax and gather. The addition of several new departments, such as a fresh pizza station, cut-to-order fruit station and a coffee bar, splendidly complement Dill’s signature meat departments, which feature Black Canyon Angus Beef and which custom-cut all of its fresh meat selections for customers daily at both stores. In addition to complete fresh hot entree and food bars for lunch and dinner, Dill’s bakery also does a brisk business with its from-scratch cobblers and widely admired fried chicken offerings. Dill’s newly remodeled store has received ample kudos in online reviews, with special shoutouts to its custom cakes, the warm associates in the deli and front end and the inviting cleanliness and spaciousness. The review that perhaps best summarizes the beauty of Dill’s Food City (and something that any grocer would love to hear): “The best meat in the area. Helpful staff. Clean store.”
Masterful Merchandising: Balls Food Stores, Kansas City, Kan.
Balls Food Stores—which operates 27 grocery stores in metro Kansas City, Kan., under the Price Chopper, Hen House, Payless Discount Foods and Sunfresh Market brands—has long set the bar for excellence in food retailing.
Third-generation grocer David Ball leads the company, which has long prioritized the importance of listening to customers and accommodating their needs with superior service, quality products, sharp prices and modern, organized stores. Last year, the retailer was recognized with the American Pharmacists Association foundation’s 2018 Pinnacle Award for its contributions to the practice of pharmacy. The retailer opened its first pharmacy in 1993 and has since expanded to 20 locations. It’s one of only two retail pharmacies in the nation to provide pharmacogenomics testing, which helps assess if a medication is safe and effective based on an individual’s genetics. Balls Food's pharmacies’ Start Now program also provides individuals with diabetes and cardiovascular disease with education and self-care. The retailer also works to encourage medication adherence through a proprietary system that Balls pharmacists helped develop to address any problems that arise with a patient’s medication, instead of using an automatic refill system.
Community Stewardship: L&R Sherman LLC (Piggly Wiggly), Ridgeland, S.C.
Lou Sherman, who operates three Piggly Wiggly stores in South Carolina, applies his motto of “If everybody just does a little, a lot gets done” to both his business operations and community stewardship efforts.
However, Sherman does quite a lot for his community, such as partnering with Wreaths Across America during the holidays to provide refreshments to volunteers laying wreaths on veterans’ graves and with the Boys & Girls Club of Jasper County to provide Valentine’s for Veterans, among countless other cause-oriented efforts. Sherman also is a pillar of the community during natural disasters, providing his communities with ice and water during hurricane recovery support. Last year, he fed the local police and fire department as they worked during Hurricane Florence recovery.
“The ability to be proactive to our customer concerns and requests” is most significant about being an independent food retailer in 2019, Sherman says. Central to his stores’ success is “the dedication of my employees, who make sure our customers’ needs are being met,” Sherman says. “When we are out of stock on a sale item, we substitute—we don’t believe in rain checks. We use every available source to carry products our customers want. If we don’t carry a certain item and our competitor does, then we will buy from them (paying full retail) and stock it on our shelves to satisfy our customers.”
Community Stewardship: North State Grocery Inc., dba Holiday Markets and Sav-Mor Foods, Cottonwood, Calif.
The 20-store North State Grocery Inc., which also operates stores under the Holiday Market banner, is completely employee-owned and is renowned for its dedication to the smaller communities it serves across Northern California. Case in point came in November 2018 following the Camp Fire, which devastated Butte County, Calif. Its Sav-Mor Foods was one of the first stores to open within a few hours in the hard-hit community of Magalia. The store faced a total loss of inventory but was restored in record time with the assistance of a professional restoration company. It had about 50 people working around the clock to repair the roof, replace the ceiling tiles clean and sanitize the store interior from top to bottom to enable the store to be restocked and back in business. And though 49 of North State’s Paradise and Magalia, Calif., employees lost their homes in the Camp Fire, the company continued to pay the displaced employees while the affected stores were closed for renovation. Sav-Mor staff kept its community updated on its Facebook page throughout its recovery efforts, much to the appreciation of its customers, who left comments such as, “Thanks for being there for us!” and “You gave a fantastic Christmas gift to the Ridge.”
Community Stewardship: Rosemont Market, Portland, Maine
John Naylor, who opened his first Rosemont Market and Bakery in 2005 and has since expanded to six locations and a warehouse in Maine, has been working to make local food accessible to the neighborhoods he serves and is passionate about supporting local farmers.
“I’m most proud of our role in our communities,” says Rosemont Market owner and co-founder John Naylor. Referencing its tagline, “Good food from people you know,” Naylor continues: “For 15 years, we’ve kept our commitment to that mission even as we’ve grown. In 2018, we did about $2.5 million in local produce from about 55 different independent farms. Our customers love that we stay as seasonal and as local as we can, from produce to wine and cheese to having our own butcher shop and working with local fisheries. They get excited when we spread the word via social media about the latest arrivals—they’re very involved!”
In 2017, Rosemont conducted a “local food development” study to determine the best strategies for increasing the volume of local food in-store, expanding distribution and increasing warehouse space and processing capacity for these items. One of those strategies includes becoming an early adopter of the Forager payment and procurement app, which streamlines the connection between the store and about 200 farmer-producers. “Our use of Forager has been a real game-changer in our ability to provide our customers with local food, in a manner that best supports our business,” Naylor says.
Digital Engagement: Yummy.com, Los Angeles
Yummy.com, a primarily online retailer that offers 30-minute grocery delivery and operates six small-format stores in Los Angeles, developed a fully integrated technology platform that’s on par with the likes of Amazon and Instacart. Co-founder and CEO Barnaby Montgomery says the retailer’s recently built Perk loyalty program, which offers free 30-minute grocery delivery, is a “great gift” that can be given to friends, family members and colleagues. Perk is $20 a month for the first five users in a network and $3 a month for additional network users. Yummy.com also offers a Passport program that gives users reorder benefits based on their individual order history. The grocery delivery pioneer was built without venture capital and does not use material advertising, instead using its unique platform to gain loyalty.
“Our customers see us as a destination online retailer because our service is clearly faster and more convenient than the competition,” Montgomery says. “Also, because we have branded storefronts in the communities we serve, customers can see and experience our service offer by shopping our brick-and-mortar stores.”
Despite the fact that it’s often “lonely as an independent food retailer without the safe harbor of a larger parent organization,” Montgomery says it keeps his team motivated and “compelled to continually innovate and improve our services on behalf of customers.”
Digital Engagement: Leevers Supermarkets, Franktown, Colo.
Save-A-Lot licensee Leevers Supermarkets is taking the lead in guiding its customers to eat healthier with its new Snap2Save app, which was developed in partnership with digital customer engagement firm Green Piranhas Inc.
The app allows customers to earn a point for every $1 they spend at one of the retailer’s 20 community stores located in Colorado and Florida and redeem those points for gift cards or healthcare rebates. Also, its Healthy Food Rewards program promotes healthier shopping choices by rewarding members with four times the points for purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables. Snap2Save also offers perks such as special offers, prizes and healthy recipe videos, and it allows users to easily check their EBT balances.
Leevers Supermarkets President John Leevers believes the Snap2Save app and Healthy Food Rewards program go a long way in helping his company take its customer offerings “to the next level."
Digital Engagement: Darrell Miller, Piggly Wiggly No. 194, Columbia, S.C.
Realizing a downward trend in sales at his Columbia, S.C., Piggly Wiggly, owner Darrell Miller teamed up with Smart.Market for Business to create a campaign that allowed him to better target his customer demographic and gain back sales.
The campaign, which ran from December 2017 through December 2018, was driven by monthly events with timed offers focused on gaining and retaining loyalty. The store also converted static messaging and offers to personalized images that matched the needs of each specific household based on age and ethnicity, including a shopper name callout with relevant, seasonal offers. This tactic more than doubled response rates, from 2.9% to 6.4%, and the campaign yielded 521 new redeemers per event.
In addition to creating personalized, timely offers, the retailer also spruced up its aisles with an organic and wine enthusiast section that further contributed to its uptick in sales.
Digital Engagement: Henderson's IGA, Valentine, Neb.
Valentine, Neb.-based Henderson’s IGA engages its customers with a series of hilarious informational and promotional videos that it shares on its social media sites. The most recent promoted Henderson’s new coupon app that allows cashiers to scan digital coupons on the shopper’s phone at checkout. The low-budget, highly entertaining slapstick-style videos encourage customers to use the app instead of paper coupons by showing a man walking up to the checkout with clumps of coupons stuffed into his pockets, a woman screaming and exclaiming “Why?!” to the heavens as she tries to organize hundreds of coupons, and even a man cutting his finger—complete with campy, horror film-esque blood splattering from his hands—while attempting to clip from a circular.
Henderson’s has also created a “Store Wars” self-promotional video, which included “Star Wars”-style scrolling text at the start and a music video that showcases its deli and bakery. It also encourages its shoppers to vote for their favorite new video by liking and sharing, the most recent winner being a Western called “Fistfuls of Bratwurst.”