March 1, 2020, marked 50 years in business for Redner’s Markets, an employee-owned chain of 44 supermarkets and 21 convenience stores operating in Eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. While the year should have been rooted in celebration, COVID-19—declared a pandemic the same month—called for different plans.
In an interview with WGB, President and CEO Ryan Render shares how Redner’s has been adapting during these uncertain times and what “the next evolution of Redner’s” looks like (spoiler: it includes an e-commerce push and a central kitchen) as he reflects on the chain’s roots.
Kristina Peters: Fifty years in business is a major milestone. How has Redner’s been celebrating?
Ryan Redner: We were ramping up the month of March with what we had thought to be a pretty good anniversary-type promotion chainwide. We got very creative. We put a good six months of thought equity into how we were going to do this, how we were going to launch it, advertise it. And I'll never forget, in the beginning of March, we had a big team meeting … and during my speech, I said, “Hey, sales seem to be ticking upwards. A lot of it, obviously, I think has to do with our [anniversary promotion] that we're launching—a lot of excitement about it. We're not sure how much of this thing called coronavirus will really impact us.” And then literally two weeks later, the world flipped upside down. So our 50th anniversary was kind of overshadowed … but we've been still playing it up. We did a lot of mobile advertising, put it on a lot of our trucks, doing things the best we can. But from March until basically August, it was nothing but managing the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. … So it's been interesting. It's been an interesting 50-year anniversary.
Speaking of the pandemic, what has Redner’s been doing to help keep customers and employees safe?
In the beginning, it literally was flying by the seat of your pants. Just trying to figure out what we were supposed to do. Not being critical toward state, local or federal governments, but the directions that we were getting were changing daily: wear a mask, don't wear a mask; put up shields, don’t put up shields; six-foot distancing, not six-foot distancing. … We have basically tried to do the best that we could: on our own, we sanitized carts; on our own, trying to the best of our ability to socially distance our customers. Right before it became a mandate, we secured, bought and installed plexiglass shields. … We got through it as a team, and we figured out that we can get through anything now.
How has Redner’s changed since 1970 when it opened with two supermarkets in Reading, Pa.?
We sort of, in essence, have come full circle. What my grandfather [Earl Redner] started in 1970 with two stores, we were basically just conventional grocery stores—what today is your conventional grocery store. Then in the ’80s, we evolved into the Warehouse Market brand, which was essentially Walmart before Walmart. No frills, no games, no gimmicks, low prices, and that was it. … Then, as time evolved, Walmart came into town, and everybody started getting more maneuverable. And this is where my tenure began. I basically started working here in probably the mid-’90s and full time in 1999, so a little bit before the Warehouse Market evolution and expansion.
Then in the early or mid-2000s, we started to get away from the Warehouse Market and focus more on the Redner’s name. We really discovered the issue when we started leaving our local market of greater Reading, and we were opening in Maryland and Delaware as Redner’s Warehouse Market. [People would say,] “Oh, where do I sign up? How do I become a member?” And we realized, we're confusing some people out there, so let's slowly start to gravitate away from that Warehouse name and call ourselves Redner’s Market.
Redner’s is regarded as being one of the first supermarkets in Pennsylvania to have scanners. How has Redner’s embraced innovation and technology since?
My grandfather was a man well ahead of his time. He [had the scanners installed]. We were also one of the first grocers to sell fuel in the parking lot of one of our grocery stores. We were the first ESOP grocery store in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Innovation with my grandfather was always there.
Spinning back to technology, that’s been a big evolution. … Lately we've really dove into—and COVID has really made us put our foot on the gas—curbside pickup, with hopes for that to get into every store. And the next step would be home delivery. So we try to the best of our ability be on the cutting edge of technology, from back office software to consumer interactions to our website. In the last five years, we have really grown that area of our business to try to really accelerate with consumers.
Tell me more about your plans with curbside pickup.
Right now we have one [store offering Redner’s Ready online ordering and pickup], and we're getting ready to launch two. … We’ve pre-purchased equipment for 12 stores, so we’ll have 12 stores probably within the next six months. The first store was the longest [to get started]. But the second and the third and the fourth will roll out pretty quick.
Last year, Redner’s debuted Redner’s Fresh Market. How is that concept being received and what are the future plans for it?
The concept’s going well. We only have two truly, physically called Redner’s Fresh Market. So it was a complete rebrand. We wanted to be careful with our rebrand, because we didn't want to alleviate the Redner’s name, and we didn't want to alienate our existing customers by thinking that by calling ourselves a Fresh Market, we're now upscale. … We really wanted to make sure that we're just telling everybody, “Listen, we're just making the store look a little bit different and … we're offering things we have never offered before.” Each store has a very expansive in-store kitchen. Both stores have executive chefs, meal solutions, and the meal replacement meals that we're creating in those stores is second to none and basically built or cooked on-site, then on the shelf five minutes later. …
We did that in two stores, and then COVID hit. Now everybody couldn't go to restaurants, right? So everyone wants these meal solutions. … So what we did was we looked at ourselves and said, “OK, now what do we need to do?” Because a Fresh Market conversion is very expensive, very labor intensive. And let's face it, we have 44 stores. We can't get this thing done fast enough to keep up with consumer demand. So now, I shift back to curbside, and that's why I put the pedal to the metal there because, with COVID, people said, “I don't want to go out to eat. I want to socially distance, but I want a great meal.”
What we're also doing, is we're right now in the process of building a commissary, a central kitchen, because the biggest downfall, as we see it, to a Fresh Market is the financial stress it puts on us as a company to build one. You’ve got to put in a multiple $100,000 dollar kitchen, hire a chef, I didn't even mention the sushi that we do, just so many different offerings that we have. So we're going to centralize it into one central unit, cook the same meal, cook it in the same way, and then transport them out to all 44 stores without physically making every change that a Fresh Market entails. It'll help us speed up our Fresh Market conversion in that we can do more sign, decor, look and feel, but still sell the same products that is not necessarily cooked in the same store. …
Then just a few months ago, we took that same Fresh Market concept and turned it into a Quick Shoppe renovation. So what was a Redner’s Quick Shoppe (convenience store) … we could turn into a Redner’s Quick Stop. Not a whole lot different, but in that, we are expanding our kitchen where we can, we're selling beer and wine. We have been using our new Redner's mark (an R in a red square, as seen in the photo below) in all of our new branding and store concepts. The mark will be synonymous with Redner's across our newly rebranded Fresh Markets, Quick Stops and existing Markets and Quick Shoppes.
And at the end of the day, once this commissary is done, we're still going to ship those meals and put them into those Quick Stops as well. So the next evolution of Redner’s is Fresh Market, Quick Stops and commissary prepared meals.
Thinking of Redner’s in the next five or 10 years, what are you envisioning? More stores, new markets, new concepts?
We’ll never stop wanting to open brick-and-mortar stores. … I'll never forget this: A couple of years ago, everyone was scared to death of Amazon, and listen, they're good, they're good at what they do, and they are a scary beast. But I told everybody on our team, “Amazon is great at what they do, but they only do one thing, and that is online shopping.” … But Amazon was smart enough to go out and spend hundreds of million dollars on what? Brick-and-mortar grocery stores. They bought Whole Foods. They know how important brick-and-mortar is because they just invested hundreds of million dollars into it. So we're in the right business. We just going backwards. We started with brick-and-mortar and we're growing into the e-commerce side. So we will never stop looking for ground-up sites. They’re few and far between. So in five to 10 years, I do think you'll see more Eastern Shore expansion for us. We do see some opportunity in that greater Delaware area. Not so much Jersey, but the Delaware-Maryland region, encroaching towards the shore towns.
In the next five to 10 years, you’re definitely going to see us deeply entrenched in e-commerce. There’s no way we could survive as a business without being able to offer curbside pickup, online shopping, home delivery and everything in between.
I also think you'll see us—we're getting into it now—becoming as much as the one-stop shop that we can become. Our latest endeavor has been with the changing of the rules in the state of Pennsylvania with selling beer and wine. Where we can do it, we've purchased liquor licenses, and we're trying to sell beer and wine. And the commissary. I think in five to 10 years, you might see us move on from the commissary that we have now into something much greater.
Redner’s recently announced plans to add more jobs chainwide and increase wages at its warehouses. How has Redner’s made this possible?
We’re always wanting to add jobs. … Nobody has a crystal ball, but I do think, COVID is continuing and will continue—at least through the winter months, the cold months, flu season—to rear its ugly head. I feel sorry for the restaurant business, but it's going drive more business our way, and we need all the help that we can get.
And then in the warehouse proposition, let's face it, all work is tough, but warehouse work is especially tough, especially when you're dealing with, in our case, a 30-degree building that you're working in every day. Not to mention, we seem to be in the mecca of new warehouse expansion … so there's other places to get warehouse jobs. And we just, as always, want to keep up with the going market rate and do whatever we can to solidify our team.
What would you say have been Render's biggest accomplishments over the years?
Staying true to our values is probably our biggest accomplishment. I don't want to sound tongue in cheek when I say that, but a lot of other small companies have either been gobbled up by bigger conglomerates or have just tried to go in a completely different lane and change themselves. … While our mission statement is rather new in creation, I think we've lived by that since the days of my grandfather starting the business, and that is being a great place to shop and work. It may sound cliche for me to say that, but I just think our family-run structure is something that I'm most proud of. Being a third-generation member, I’ve had the privilege of growing up with many of the people that I work with today … and no one runs around this place acting like they're the boss; everyone acts like we're one big family.