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02/10/2021

2021 Outstanding Independent Awards

Bridget Goldschmidt
Managing Editor
Bridget Goldschmidt profile picture

Independent grocers are known for their ability to pivot in response to market conditions or customer demand, but 2020 threw them a major curveball in the form of a pandemic that, despite the rollout of vaccines, isn’t over yet. In recognition of the unique challenges presented by the worst public-health crisis in more than a century, Progressive Grocer made the decision to honor those resilient independents that were the most creative and undaunted in overcoming the myriad difficulties presented by COVID-19.

Of course, the coronavirus wasn’t the only issue that independents had to deal with this past year. For some, there were massive wildfires, while others faced the floodwaters of disastrous storms. A few powered through planned remodels and construction projects at what might have seemed an inopportune time, while others rolled out e-commerce platforms for the first time, or greatly ramped up existing programs, in response to circumstances. All met the moment by continuing to serve their communities through countless uncertainties, providing safe havens not just for shopping, but also for fellowship and fun. Beyond the walls of their stores, these extraordinary grocers many of them the mainstays of their small towns reached out more than ever to help the hungry, the jobless and the hopeless, with inspiring results. In a particularly poignant twist, there were instances where grateful communities repaid years of caring actions by in turn raising funds for, or offering free services to, their beloved local grocers to help keep them going.

What PG’s 21 honorees, whose store counts range from one to 42, share in common, along with a steely determination to succeed despite the odds, is a vast capacity for joy. In the midst of calamity, these retailers created gorgeous displays, offered in-store music concerts to uplift shoppers’ spirits, and even arranged for kids to receive a socially distanced visit with Santa. 

Additionally, in another Outstanding Independent award departure, PG has bestowed its first-ever Visionary designation on Vegan Fine Brands, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based concept that may consist of just one location now, but whose founder/CEO, Steven Smith, is determined to take to underserved areas across the country. Despite their often small size, independent grocers have never been afraid to dream big, whatever the obstacles, and that quality is still very much in evidence with Vegan Fine Brands and PG’s other Outstanding Independents.

Balls Food Stores

Kansas City, Kan.
Number of Stores: 26

Operating 26 supermarkets under the Hen House Market, Price Chopper, Sun Fresh and Payless Discount Foods banners in Kansas City and surrounding markets, locally owned and family-operated Balls Food Stores immediately looked for ways to take care of displaced workers when the pandemic shuttered restaurant dining rooms.

In March, shortly after a state of emergency was declared in Kansas by Gov. Laura Kelly, Balls’ Sun Fresh Market banner hired furloughed workers from local restaurants. With the support of the entire Balls organization, Sun Fresh Market Store Director Kathy Scott found jobs for the workers at one store. Further, to foster hope and unity among workers and customers alike, the transferred workers were encouraged to wear the shirts from their usual restaurants.

“In my wildest dreams, I could not have foreseen any of this happening,” noted Liza Terry, who usually works at the nearby Blue Moose Restaurant. “To have this opportunity to keep the bills paid and to give my family some hope, it’s been really great.”

CEO David Ball grandson of company founders Sidney and Mollie Ball took the outreach one step further for another local business, Jack Stack Barbecue, a fourth-generation family-owned barbecue restaurant with five locations in Kansas City. Understanding the plight of a small, locally owned business and feeling a kinship with a family similarly steeped in the tradition of serving the community, Ball arranged for Jack Stack Barbecue to be in Balls’ deli sections, advertising the product and running an appeal to support local restaurants in his stores’ weekly circulars.

The Ball family and organization’s century-long practice of working to improve the places where they live and work is best summed up in a portion of a letter written by Ball to community members: “The people of Kansas City, working together with our health care workers and essential employees to do the best for the greater good, is what makes Kansas City what it is very special. We could not be prouder or more grateful to have built our business and our lives here over the last 100 years.”

Bi-Rite Market

San Francisco
Number of Stores: 2

Over the years, the Bi-Rite Family of Businesses has been a community builder, working with others to create a healthier, more equitable San Francisco. When the coronavirus pandemic began, Bi-Rite maintained its focus on protecting the health, safety and long-term vibrancy of its staff and community, even as the company’s B2B catering business evaporated overnight, its Cafe and Creamery temporarily closed, and it started metering the number of customers at its markets, resulting in a significant decrease in revenue.

Throughout the extraordinary year of 2020, Bi-Rite did the following:

• Provided financial support to local farmers’ markets EBT Market Match programs, to San Francisco’s Women’s Building food pantry and to 18 Reasons’ Cooking Matters program, to specifically address food insecurity

• Partnered with SF New Deal x Great Plates Delivered to prepare more than 24,000 meals for seniors housebound due to the pandemic

• Donated food culls five days a week to nonprofits focused on feeding seniors and unhoused neighbors

• Teamed with a local restaurant to donate 1.6 million free meals to front-line and restaurant workers

• Increased the number of families served by the Mo’MAGIC Healthy Holiday Meals program by 60%, delivering organic turkeys, produce and fresh eggs to 400 families living in SROs and public housing

• Raised more than $20,000 such organizations as Old Skool Café, a 1920s-style speakeasy and jazz restaurant offering violence prevention job training, and employment for formerly incarcerated and at-risk youth

• Held a staff-led Juneteenth celebration and silent protest

• Boosted the staff discount to 40% to ensure that all employees had even greater access to food

• Provided annual wage increases for all non-exempt staff

• Added further sick pay protection benefits and enabled access to free weekly on-site COVID-19 testing for staffers.

As its communities rebuild and recover in 2021, Bi-Rite’s plans include:

• Serving more families with its Healthy Holiday Meal program and Cooking Matters classes, and provide more frequent food boxes to help these families truly become food secure

• Increasing the minimum wage to $20/hour (more than 20% higher than San Francisco’s minimum wage)

• Expanding its commitment to being a more equitable, antiracist organization

Bi-Rite aims to accomplish all of this while continuing to offer nourishing, healthy food and maintaining a safe yet joyful place.

BriarPatch Food Co-op

Grass Valley, Calif.
Number of Stores: 1

BriarPatch Food Co-op is committed to helping shoppers feel safe, welcomed and cared for, despite the challenges of COVID-19. Adding to the stress of the pandemic, the co-op’s Sierra Foothills community simultaneously faced unprecedented California wildfires and power outages. During a daunting year, the marketing team made the strategic choice to use resources not only to keep operating, but also to remind shoppers that they were supporting and could depend upon their long-standing community hub during a difficult time. The result was BriarPatch’s highest-ever sales year on record.

Early on, the store implemented safety protocols beyond the minimum state mask and capacity mandates, such as installing plexiglass register shields, starting Curbside Service, and offering Early Bird and Night Owl hours for vulnerable shoppers. BriarPatch wanted to go a step further, however, by helping shoppers understand the connection between their support of the store and its positive effect on their neighbors.

By March, normal donation requests had slowed to a trickle, despite the fact that many nonprofits were struggling to meet an increased need compounded by lack of funding and volunteers in lockdown. In response, BriarPatch launched the Helping Our Heroes campaign to recognize those working on the front lines. The co-op regularly delivered small tokens of the community’s gratitude lunch, flowers, baked goods and gift cards to these heroes. BriarPatch also donated groceries to people in need, dollars enabling economic recovery for struggling small businesses and a Thanksgiving meal for local firefighters, sharing these stories on social media and with local media. As a result, those who felt powerless and isolated shared how the stories helped them reconnect with one another.

To further help local businesses, BriarPatch teamed with an area brewery on Unity in the Community IPA, sold exclusively at the co-op, and both businesses each donated $1 toward a local small-business relief fund, creating another opportunity for shoppers to participate in rebuilding the town through patronage, this time while enjoying a brew.

At a time when touting promotions and sales felt inappropriate, BriarPatch opted to show its neighbors the value of its cooperative model and its deep roots in collaboration, keeping it local and sharing, all of which resonated with the community.

Burns’ Family Neighborhood Market (The Fresh Grocer/ShopRite)

Drexel Hill, Pa.
Number of Stores: 7

After months of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and dealing with violence in the community caused by civil unrest, The Fresh Grocer of Upper Darby was faced with yet another major challenge early last August, when it had to close temporarily in the wake of severe flooding caused by Hurricane Isaias.

The severe weather brought more than feet of floodwater inside the supermarket, ruining hundreds of thousands of dollars in inventory and destroying millions of dollars in equipment. The Fresh Grocer of Upper Darby first opened in 2016 and offers a state-of-the-art shopping experience with more than 40 varieties of home-style prepared hot entrées made fresh daily and signature made-to-order hoagies and sandwiches, along with such other offerings as an online shopping service with curbside pickup and contactless home delivery options available daily.

Bringing their more than 40 years of experience in the supermarket business in the greater Philadelphia area to bear, Patrick J. Burns and the Burns family, owners and operators of the 53,000-square-foot store, worked with tireless staffers to reopen in record time so that the Upper Darby community wasn’t without access to its major local supermarket for an extended period of time.

“Our team has been working day and night to rebuild, repair and replenish,” said Burns during the rebuilding phase. “If this year has proven anything, it is that we are resilient and can overcome our greatest challenges by working together. Regardless of the obstacle, we remain committed to providing our community with access to fresh and affordable foods in a safe, friendly and top-notch shopping environment. We can’t wait to open up our doors again.”

The diligent efforts of Burns and his team enabled The Fresh Grocer of Upper Darby to reopen just a little more than a week after it had been devastated by the floodwaters.

Cedar Market

Teaneck, N.J.
Number of Stores: 1

As the first cases of COVID-19 began to emerge in the United States, kosher market Cedar Market located in one of the hardest-hit areas of the country, took action to make sure that its store was safe to shop just weeks ahead of Passover.

The market implemented daily deep cleaning and sanitizing of the entire store and all contact surfaces, and rolled out new protocols to protect customers and employees. A 25-person limit was instituted immediately, with a door monitor enforcing mandatory hand sanitizing at the front door, proper face coverings for entry and supplying latex gloves for use. Further, a system was set up in which customers receive a sticker that is prominently displayed, showing an exit time (20 minutes from entry), with only one member of a family allowed entry.

Social-distancing and sanitizing reminder signage were put up in prominent spots throughout the store.

Cedar Market knew that Passover 2020 would be much busier than in previous years, as travel plans had been canceled and many people who were accustomed to going away would now be observing the holiday at home. Subsequently, the demand for deliveries exploded. Eighty to ninety percent of customers started submitting delivery orders rather than coming to the store in person, as they were quarantining. As the store doesn’t offer an e-commerce program, customers submit orders by making a shopping list via email. To assist customers unused to this process, Cedar Market created department guides and took to social media to showcase available products. Its Instagram stories were saved as highlights showcasing each aisle or department, filled with pictures and videos of products. This way, home shoppers could get a sense of the store and of shopping normally when placing their orders. 

As a result of this new reality, staffers found themselves feverishly shopping orders to keep up with demand. The buying team went into overdrive, securing product so shelves remained stocked, even with all of the shortages experienced nationwide. Thanks to the dedication of every staff member, the team came out of this period stronger. Furthermore, the good relationships that Cedar Market formed with many vendors helped ease some of the challenges of procuring difficult-to-obtain products.

The Co-op Ozark Natural Foods

Fayetteville, Ark.
Number of Stores: 1

In June 2020, The Co-Op Ozark Natural Foods, which has been in business since 1971 and is a mainstay in the local community, moved to a newly designed and renovated location with the aim of returning downtown and re-establishing itself with area residents. Since the move, the co-op has seen a steady 20% total-store sales increase over the previous year. It was also able to bring in more than 10 new local vendors, while continuing to support the roughly 50 area producers that it has partnered with for years. The retailer’s Farmhand program has generated $20,608 for local producer projects since it opened at the new location, while the co-op’s outreach program has donated more than $20,700 to 74 organizations since the move.

Aided by what it calls the “immeasurable” dedication of its staff, The Co-op Ozark Natural Foods has been able to offer smaller in-store services that were much needed and appreciated by the community in the midst of a pandemic: a massive indoor/outdoor patio that allowed families and college students to safely gather, study, eat lunch, grab a beer from one of the local breweries now on tap or get a to-go salad from the only store in town providing pre-packaged salads. Meanwhile, a new department, The Homestead, offers all things plant-related, including locally grown native plant seedlings, farm animal feed like chicken scratch the only organic option in the area and, of course, all of the pet needs anyone could anticipate for their furry loved one. The response from the community has been overwhelming, according to the co-op.

Looking to the future, the retailer is full of hope. As Emily Ann Timmons, The Co-op Ozark Natural Foods brand manager, notes, “We cannot wait to see what a post-pandemic world has to offer our co-op and what we can, in return, offer to our community.”

Dorothy Lane Market

Dayton, Ohio
Number of Stores: 3

While modestly protesting that its actions in 2020 were “perhaps no more heroic than [those] of our fellow independents,” Dorothy Lane Market nevertheless finds that “ it’s quite impossible to highlight a single accomplishment.” What the retailer did manage to include among its achievements is impressive enough, however.

To protect dedicated cashiers working in closest contact to customers, Dorothy Lane’s small maintenance team quickly built and installed plexiglass barriers. Meanwhile, associates at all levels pitched in to help in the face of product shortages; for instance, when yeast and flour grew scarce at times, Dorothy Lane’s bakers individually cupped and merchandised their bulk supplies, and they continued to bake. Additionally, round-the-clock positions were created at each location to sanitize any used cart before allowing it to move into the cart corral.

On top of it all, Dorothy Lane’s vendors, with which it has cultivated strong relationships over the years, were there for the retailer when it needed them most, such as a valued local partner who kept on delivering his family’s farm-fresh organic eggs. Further, the grocer has seen its existing online business quadruple overnight, giving rise to dizzying growth and a remodel of its in-store dining area to serve as a curbside pickup hub. Dorothy Lane similarly improvised on the fly this past May for its annual Lobstermania promotion. Instead of canceling the eagerly anticipated event showcasing Maine lobster, the retailer converted the promotion into a drive-thru experience.

As for its interactions with often worried shoppers at an uncertain period, the grocer asserts, “There is perhaps nothing more [humbling] than providing that sense of security to our community during what may be one of the most collectively eerie times of our lifetime.”

All of these activities have given rise to the retailer’s key operational takeaway from the pandemic. Having adapted successfully to extraordinary times, Dorothy Lane vows that even after “this strange era that we’re living [in] continues to move into its next, hopefully happier chapter, we will continue to evolve.

Eddie’s of Roland Park

Baltimore
Number of Stores: 2

While 2020 has required near-constant innovation and operational adaptations throughout the grocery industry, Eddie’s of Roland Park led by example in its beloved hometown of Baltimore.

Eddie’s modified internal procedures, training additional staff and establishing dedicated phone lines to accommodate a dramatic increase in demand for Eddie’s Personal Shopping service — fulfilling more than six years’ worth of online orders during just the first six weeks of the pandemic alone. Overnight, the retailer’s decades-long tradition of personalized shopping assistance morphed from a customer convenience to a neighborhood necessity, generating a 500% year-over-year sales lift, amassing more than 100 positive customer testimonials and leading to an unprompted community-led fundraiser that collected $11,000 in gratuities to distribute among store staffers.

Meanwhile,  to quench homebound customers’ thirst for escapism, Eddie’s developed a summer-long Staycation Supper Club series of family-style dinners inspired by popular travel destinations. The pay-as-you-go program offered a bi-weekly menu from June through Labor Day, and was accompanied by a Spotify soundtrack consisting entirely of Baltimore-area musicians and bands, curated by local musician and customer William Cashion, of the alternative rock band Future Islands.

The retailer has also supported the Maryland Food Bank with more than $12,000 in contributions since the start of the pandemic, including customer donations made through an Eddie’s-sponsored virtual food drive, as well as based on sales from its Holiday-in-a-Box menu, a series of family-style holiday dinner options created to meet growing customer demand while ensuring safe and efficient store operations.

Further, in recognition of Baltimore’s creative community, whose livelihood has been imperilled by the pandemic, Eddie’s collaborated with, employed and promoted various local professional artists on such ventures as sidewalk serenades from jazz musicians Eddie Hrybyk and Clarence Ward III; an in-store performance of “Christmas Vibes,” a CD (sold at Eddie’s) by vibraphonist Warren Wolf, streamed via Facebook and featured on local television for Small Business Saturday; a virtual cocktail class hosted by Nikki G. Davidson, of Cocktail Crafty; and a marketing collaboration with papercut artist Annie Howe, whose work inspired Eddie’s holiday advertising campaign, along with an eggnog cheesecake featuring a cinnamon nutmeg snowflake based on Howe’s design.

In sum, Eddie’s of Roland Park worked hard throughout 2020 to retain its tradition of personalized, community-minded service, and succeeded brilliantly.

Greer’s

Mobile, Ala.
Number of Stores: 28

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and with it, supply chain issues facing the grocery industry, Greer’s wanted to be more nimble in its advertising so as to give customers a more accurate description of what might be in stock. The retailer decided to create a digital version of its fresh-focused circular, titled “Fresh Picks at a Great Price.”

To that end, the Greer’s team adjusted some of its normal timelines and structures to provide information more quickly and closer to the sale date, without the need to be several weeks ahead for the print ad. The retailer collaborated with Associated Wholesale Grocers Advertising and Marketing to complete the graphics for the digital versions of these ads and digital assets.

The switch to digital has proved to be a huge success: So far, 26 of Greer’s 28 stores are ahead of pre-COVID customer counts. Additionally, all 28 stores are ahead of sales goals from the previous year – making 2020 one of the most effective years to date for the longstanding family-run store group.

Kowalski’s Markets

Woodbury, Minn.
Number of Stores: 11

Twin Cities area mainstay Kowalski’s Markets, which bills itself as “one-stop shop offering specialty and conventional products in a warm, accessibly elegant environment,” helped its customers shop safely, maintain social distance and stay home during 2020’s pandemic by partnering with DoorDash and Grubhub to add and increase offerings for delivery and pickup of ready-made meals, bakery and produce items, and more; increasing program capacity and product availability for curbside pickup and delivery of groceries, and selectively eliminating service fees; and upping capacity and availability of online preorder and prepay programs.

Beyond its pandemic response, Kowalski’s operates industry-leading trash-to-energy and recycling programs, and enables its food waste to be used by local farmers. The retailer’s plastic-recycling program turns bags into decking, while its reusable-bag program supports Great River Greening in conserving and restoring local land and water resources.

Other charitable endeavors include Kowalski’s4Kids, which benefits at-risk youth, and its Groceries for Good Causes (GFGC) has donated $2 million-plus to schools, churches  and food shelves immediately surrounding each of its stores. GFGC allows customers to nominate beneficiary organizations and have a say in how funds are dispersed. The first grocery retailer to partner with Second Harvest Heartland’s foodshelf network, Kowalski’s has donated more than 1 million meals to Minnesota’s food insecure. The retailer also employs numerous clients of Merrick, a nonprofit organization offering enrichment activities and employment support to disabled local adults.

As part of its business model, Kowalski’s devotes substantial resources to train stakeholders to organize, educate and set policy in accordance with democratic principles and standards. This proprietary program teaches employees that they have the capacity to know what’s good, and the responsibility to grow that knowledge and act accordingly to create sustainable solutions that serve common good among diverse self-interests.

The retailer additionally helps local suppliers learn the ins and outs of the retail industry, labeling, packaging, ingredient sourcing and more to help them compete with bigger brands on the national level. Also as part of its food offering, Kowalski’s invests substantially in specialty/exclusive programs and recipes, such as build-your-own concepts for burrito, pho and ramen noodle bowls, and custom-made hibachi and pasta bowls featuring exclusive and private label products.

Little House Green Grocery

Richmond, Va.
Number of Stores: 1

Erin Wright, owner of Little House Green Grocery, aptly describes the spring of 2020 as “such a blur all of a sudden our shelves were cleared out, the food staples that we counted on were no longer able to be sourced and people were getting nervous. Would we be able to get flour, rice and sugar again? How were we going to keep our staff and our customers safe? All we knew was that our customers were counting on us to provide a safe and reliable place to get their groceries, and we were going to work as hard as we could to provide for them.”

Little House was able to find creative solutions to these new problems, one by one. The retailer’s small team knew it would have been impossible to put its inventory online, since it couldn’t count on the stability of a supply chain. Therefore, according to Wright, “We simply committed to creating an atmosphere that was as safe as possible, with clear signage, requiring masks to enter, and a strict sanitizing schedule for high-touch areas.”

As demand for healthy food was soaring, Little House was able to increase its purchases from local farms. The retailer’s Veggie Box, a weekly produce subscription, grew at unprecedented levels in fact, Little House had to stop accepting new subscriptions because it ran out of room in its refrigerator to store them.

After shoring up its business, Little House looked to aid its neighbors. “As the season wore on and we could finally lift our heads up, we saw the needs popping up in our community,” notes Wright. When it found out that one of its nonprofit farm partners, Frank Community Farm, was struggling because it couldn’t teach classes or rely on most of its former income streams due to the pandemic, Little House donated 100% of the funds raised through a tote bag sale to aid the enterprise. Additionally, the retailer asked farmers who were delivering to it if they had extra produce to add to its weekly donation of edible shrink to two organizations, and happily joined with one of its vendors, a local jam company, to help raise awareness and money for a local trans youth fundraiser.

Macey’s

Salt Lake City
Number of Stores: 18

Among the outstanding initiatives Macey’s carried out in 2020.

1. The Community Hero Awards: This program was created to help recognize those individuals in the community who were going above and beyond to help others in the early months of the pandemic. Customers could nominate their community hero to receive a $100 Macey’s gift card. As the stories came in, they were printed and shared in the retailer’s weekly ad so that others could hear about the good that was happening around them, at a time that goodness was hard to see.

2. Food Drives: From May through December, Macey’s held several food drives in its stores. The food was shared with local community pantries, the Utah Food Bank and programs set up to help provide food for students living with food insecurity in the state, where one in every five children doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from. The haul from the November food drive took six semi-trailers to deliver everything to the Utah food bank. The retailer has already planned two food drives planned for the first quarter. of 2021.

3. Visits With Santa Claus: This past holiday season, Kris Kringle greeted children at the retailer through scheduled pickup appointments with Macey’s Anywhere online orders. Customers could schedule their Santa pickup time with no minimum fee, so purchasing a box of mac and cheese or bag of M&M’s would enable a visit with St. Nick. Selfie photos of Santa and the kids were taken from outside the cars, with everyone masked for safety, offering a way to preserve the memory of an unconventional and hopefully unique Christmas.

Menomonie Market Food Co-op

Menomonie, Wis.
Number of Stores: 1

A community-owned grocery store founded as a food buying club in 1973 by a small group of local residents and today boasting 3,000 owners in the Chippewa Valley, Menomonie Market Food Co-op maintained its commitment to sourcing from local producers and to helping its community amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The co-op found ways to protect the rural area it serves, among them keeping employees and customers safe by installing plexiglass shields at checkstands, promoting social distancing, implementing a store sanitizing program and mandating masks. Its biggest innovation, however, was launching an e-commerce platform to offer customers curbside pickup. Menomonie Market’s website allows shoppers to shop for local products, helping keep sales of those items at pre-COVID levels so that the retailer could maintain its purchases from, and investment in, area farms at a time when local producers were losing revenue from the closure of other businesses. Although the e-commerce launch was originally planned for 2023, a team of five staff members managed to get it up and running in just a few months.

Eager to add money to the local economy, the co-op secured a Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin grant to buy processing equipment to increase their purchases of local food. Menomonie bought unsold produce from farmers’ markets and seconds from local farms, which were then turned into house-made foods by the deli. The program enables farmers to earn money for products they wouldn’t otherwise be able to sell, and helps create jobs at the co-op. Additionally, the retailer’s annual Fund Our Foodshed grant program awarded $4,500 to fund projects at three small farms in the area.

Further, when Just Local Food Cooperative in Eau Claire, Wis., lost its entire administrative staff just before the pandemic, Menomonie Market staff stepped up to help by providing interim general management and administrative services. The two co-ops are currently looking at ways to continue their collaboration.

All of these activities added up to Menomonie Market’s busiest and most productive year ever — achieved while helping their tiny town to survive and thrive despite a global emergency.

Nature’s Food Patch

Clearwater, Fla.
Number of Stores: 2

Since the COVID-19 crises began, family-owned locally community grocery store Nature’s Food Patch (NFP) has stepped up to the plate to ease the pains of the pandemic for consumers.

Under its initiative to facilitate grocery shopping for its customers while keeping everyone safe, The Patch has implemented a number of new concepts, innovations and operations with respect to its online technology. Since March 2020, the retailer has spent countless hours establishing and honing an online ordering platform for all of its departments, including café and deli. These innovations involve Instacart delivery, Patch Curbside Pickup and a café ordering app.

While considering the needs of its customers and staffers, NFP devised a solution for its “Patch Family.” As an accommodation for those who weren’t shopping in-store, The Patch teamed with Instacart to offer grocery pickup and delivery, thereby establishing a safer means of providing essential services to the community. Shortly thereafter, the retailer introduced its own free online ordering platform to offer convenient curbside pickup, enabling consumers to continue to receive senior and wellness discounts, save on in-store sales, and earn rewards towards their Patch Perks.This service permitted The Patch to continue providing enthusiastic and courteous service to their family in a new medium.

At a critical time, NFP succeeded in creating a more prudent and accessible approach to shopping for high-quality natural products, organic produce and scratch-made deli items, among other items, with safety always top of mind.

Northgate Gonzalez Markets

Anaheim, Calif.
Number of Stores: 41

Family-owned for the past 40 years, Northgate González Market (NGM) this past year committed more than $650,000 to support and assist its most vulnerable community members during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was just a continuation of the Southern California retailer’s  partnerships to aid those who live and work in the areas it serves.

NGM’s actions during this time included donating more than 55,000 bags of tortillas supporting food distributions, more than 5,000 meals for first responders and hospitals, and thousands of meals through Meals on Wheels at store level for seniors; assisting food distributions by lending its transportation team for deliveries, associates to support food drives, and refrigerated trucks to store perishable foods, forklifts and warehouse storage; the creation of several Food Voucher programs for families in need of assistance; supporting organizations by shopping and bagging groceries for families who have been affected by COVID-19; aiding organizations with food distributions by providing in-kind donations, bulk sales at cost for the first time in its history, and matching and donating gift cards; the early April 2020 launch of a bilingual multimedia platform, Stay-at-Home Solutions, aimed at keeping families safe and healthy at home by offering fun recipes, tips, activities and more; the creation free bilingual PSA messages for in-store radio spots specific to its community regarding COVID-19; and conducting free COVID testing at three of its stores.

Further, the supermarket operator worked in concert and maintained frequent communications with public-health authorities, as well as adhering to sanitation and cleaning protocols that exceed recommendations made by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Along with providing all associates with masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment, and instituting quarantining with pay for employees age 65 and older to protect their health, NGM became one of the first grocers in the United States to designate early shopping hours exclusively for high-risk senior citizens and persons with disabilities.

Oliver’s Market

Santa Rosa, Calif.
Number of Stores: 4

Oliver’s Market, a 32-year-old grocer in California’s Sonoma County, adapted nimbly not only to keep employees and customers safe amid the pandemic, but also during two wildfires and planned local utility outages in the area.

The retailer’s leadership team immediately set to work installing plexiglass shields at checkstands, instituted daily temperature and wellness checks, and established aggressive practices to remove staffers who may have been exposed, offering supplemental paid sick leave in addition to paid time off. For transparency, staffers receive notification of any case in their facility, and of the sanitation plans and actions taken.

Oliver’s also put on display Sonoma County’s Exhibit A disclosure, listing all cleaning protocols, precautions and maximum store capacity; posted store signage containing safety messages; installed socially distanced line markers; played recorded pages to remind customers of proper protocols; sanitized all baskets/carts; and had door greeters monitor customer counts during key shopping hours while welcoming shoppers and checking for masks.

To make shopping safer for seniors, the retailer extended its Wednesday Senior Discount event to three days per week and added store hours for elderly and immune-compromised shoppers.

Meanwhile, after the closure of self-serve deli areas, Oliver’s converted to full-serve hot bars or pre-packed food, launched a full-service hot soup bar behind the counters, and added Square for online ordering to reduce traffic.

Crucially, Oliver’s leadership team opted not to lay off staff when foodservice sales plummeted, instead extending hazard pay to staff. In fact, the business is one of the few grocers who has paid hazard pay throughout the entire pandemic.

Faced with product shortages, management gave staff autonomy to source replacement items for out-of-stocks, while buyers leveraged relationships with multiple vendors to improve inventory gaps. Oliver’s relied on its local vendor relations to keep products in stock, particularly meat and produce.

In its fourth year as an employee-owned company, the retailer transitioned its Employee Appreciation month from in-person activities to an independent activity packet completed for raffle tickets, a Zoom raffle prize event, online video employee education, and meal vouchers supporting local restaurants.

Finally, as the festive season loomed, Oliver’s Q4 advertising offered full-month discounts, encouraging people to shop early and avoid holiday congestion. Most spectacularly, the Windsor store’s closed Tavern Off the Green was reimagined as a holiday shopping wonderland.

PomegranatE Market

Sioux Falls, S.D.
Number of Stores: 1

Local grocer Pomegranate Market made the strategic decision to view the challenges of 2020 as “even greater opportunities to better serve our community and expand our brand.”

The first such opportunity was a total brand refresh after 10 years in business. A major part of the overhaul was the creation of vinyl graphics for the retailer’s front windows to communicate to existing and potential customers who Pomegranate is as a store and what it provides. The next step was to redesign the store image with new banners, signage, and such private label items as snacks, water, vitamins and local wines.

Along with these changes, Pomegranate began to create its own monthly ad amid the shortages of the pandemic. Constantly confronted with out-of-stocks from its distributors, the retailer opted to offer an online-only ad. This move gave Pomegranate the ability to home in on the products and offerings that make its store unique, while giving customers a more personal experience. Only as its delivery schedule and product stock normalized was the retailer finally able to roll out in-store ads.

As the pandemic wore on, Pomegranate identified the need to expand its services even further. The retailer began offering free curbside pickup to any customer looking to limit contact, as well as creating its own online shopping experience via Mercato a service the store’s customers have been making full use of.

Finally, a major highlight at the close of the year was the donation of more than 1,000 pounds of food to Feeding South Dakota, a local hunger relief organization. Throughout November and December, Pomegranate teamed up with customers to assemble and donate natural food bags, each full of such essentials as organic cereal, pasta, pasta sauce, mac and cheese, soup, and crackers. This past holiday season, Pomegranate’s donation surpassed the original goal it set of beating its 2019 donation of 680 pounds of food.

Buoyed by its accomplishments in 2020 and the rock-solid support of customers, vendors and local residents, Pomegranate promises even more improvements in store, as regards both its business and its community outreach efforts.

Thompson’s County Market

Oconto, Wis.
Number of Stores: 1

When COVID struck back in March 2020, third-generation grocer Thompson’s County Market sprang into action. The local school system hadn’t developed a school lunch program for students quarantined at home, so Thompson’s stepped up to the plate, offering all school age children free lunch, no questions asked, and the retailer continues to do so, ensuring that no one in their community goes hungry.

Thompson’s also worked to make sure that its elderly and high-risk customers have access to home deliveries when they can’t make it into the store. Since the retailer has no formal delivery program, its managers take calls from these customers and deliver the groceries personally. 

Simultaneously, Thompson’s used this time to completely change out all of its registers and front end fixtures, as keeping up to date and providing the best shopping experience have always been priorities for the retailer.

Part of living in a small town is the unique connection a grocer can develop with its customer base. In Thompson’s case, the retailer not only takes personal product requests from the customers its staff knows so well, it also frequently donates products and cash gifts to local charities, and its attached gas station gives a percentage of profit back to the local Booster Club, a school partner organization that helps students purchase sports equipment, among other enrichment programs. This dedication to helping others comes straight from the top: owners Mike and Wendy Thompson, who truly value their shoppers and their community, and take such great pride in their store.

Trig’s

Wausau, Wis.
Number of Stores: 7

While for 50 years Trig’s associates have demonstrated the retailer’s core value, “Make A Difference in Our Communities,” the coronavirus pandemic showed them the business’ deep impact on the community, and the depth of appreciation of its customers.

One key way that Trig’s, operated by T.A. Solberg Inc., embodied its core value in 2020 was by supporting those facing food insecurity and donating to local organizations. This past year, those needs only increased.

With community members choosing to shop at Trig’s over larger chain retailers, due to customers’ reliance on the neighborhood mainstay for its fresh, quality foods; superior service; and integrity during an uncertain time, the grocer experienced significant sales lifts from in-store and online visits. This led to increased staffing needs, so Trig’s actively hired people who had lost their jobs due to business closings, providing temporary or permanent work for those in need of a new source of income.

Also, recognizing the financial hardships that local restaurants were enduring, the retailer reached out to have daily meals catered for its staff, essential workers who were now working harder, longer hours than ever. This move not only kept the restaurants open, it also helped to boost energy and morale within Trig’s own team.

Then, as it was facing the exponential growth in product demand, work hours, community fear and ever-changing policies, Trig’s unexpectedly found itself on the receiving end of support from its community as other businesses and individuals came forward to make a difference of their own. Without hesitation, community members offered their expertise and gifts to enable the retailer to make its stores safe and comply with new mandates.

For instance, local businesses sanitized shopping carts and fabricated and installed plexiglass shields at no cost, residents and businesses alike proposed to sew masks for associates, and customers showed renewed gratitude to Trig’s front-line workers by displaying yard signs that paid tribute to their efforts and thanking the team for coming into work so that they had a place to shop.

As Director of Marketing Kindl Furtak notes, “We’re proud of the work our associates do in our communities, and a very bright spot in this challenging year was how we were all able to come together to support each other.

Turnip Truck

Nashville, Tenn.
Number of Stores: 3

Celebrating its 20th year in business, Turnip Truck – a locally owned natural and organic grocer in Nashville began 2020 preparing to open its third location in the heart of Music City. Those plans were jeopardized when a deadly derecho ripped through the area, demolishing much of the equipment for the store the same month the COVID-19 pandemic began. Undeterred, founder/owner John Dyke and his team sourced available equipment and built the West Nashville store, ensuring a local food source for a new part of town.

The West Nashville store features environmentally responsible design, including solar panels and the reuse of an existing structure on a busy road. In common with Turnip Truck’s other locations in East Nashville and The Gulch, the new location is near established neighborhoods, increasing residents’ access to healthy fresh food.

Not only was Turnip Truck able to weather the storm, its three stores thrived in difficult conditions by protecting employees and shoppers and giving back to the community. From installing sanitizing stations and sneeze guards to being an early adopter of strict cleaning protocols, the retailer worked diligently to combat disease spread. Its good stewardship led to prominent coverage by numerous local news outlets, including TV, the front page of The Tennessean, and a multi-issue series in the local business press.

In the area of community outreach, Turnip Truck supported Nashvillians facing homelessness, joblessness and food scarcity because of the storms and the pandemic by donating food to worthy causes, including Martha O’Bryan Center’s Second Harvest Food Bank in East Nashville and The Nashville Food Project. Further, to help heal Nashville’s storm-ravaged ecosystem, the retailer raised funds for Nashville Tree Conservation Corps, which replanted mature trees in town.

Meanwhile, on a lighter note, in a city increasingly known for its mural art, Turnip Truck brought beauty to its newest store by commissioning an original work by a local artist. In collaboration with Fairtrade America, which sponsored the project, the retailer designed and installed a mural promoting gender equity and Fair Trade products.

Vegan Fine Brands

Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Number of Stores: 1

Progressive Grocer’s first-ever Outstanding Independent Visionary designation goes to Vegan Fine Brands, a single-store Black-owned and -operated business founded in 2016. The brainchild of founder and CEO Steven Smith, the retailer not only survived the 2020 pandemic, but also has just revealed an equity crowdfunding raise that will help the company expand and franchise to bring its one-of-a-kind retail experience to millions across the country.

Located in the Riverwalk section of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Vegan Fine Brands encompasses Vegan Fine Foods, a 5,000-square-foot 100% vegan market; Vegan Fine Café, featuring plant-based sandwiches, bowls, smoothies and baked goods; and Vegan Fine Body, offering high-quality plant-based face and body care products. The enterprise is far more than a grocery store for vegans, however.

Smith, a former engineer for Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo, estimates that more than 75% of his customers in South Florida don’t identify as vegan or plant-based eaters. That statistic is one of the reasons that wants to bring the Vegan Fine Brands model to cities across the country.

“I spent years living in food deserts with little to no accessibility to nutrient dense foods, and I see how damaging that can be for underserved communities,“ notes Smith. “I’m competitive and driven, and my extensive business background has given me the tools and connections to see this through. My commitment to increasing access to quality plant-based products for everyone deepens my conviction.”

While 2020 was a challenging year for most retailers, Vegan Fine Brands was able to thrive by forming a strong bond with, and understanding of, its loyal customers, who see this unique retail experience as a mainstay in their lives.

A 100% vegan market in every city, bringing healthy options to food deserts across the country? Smith is dedicated to turning his ambitious vision into reality.