INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Doing good in Wisconsin

Wisconsin has long been known for its Badgers, and thanks to retired grocer Tom Metcalfe, it's also known for brats.

What began in 1983 as a modest customer appreciation luncheon in the parking lot of Metcalfe's Sentry Foods has today evolved into Madison's most popular community event. Complete with great food—most notably, of course, bratwurst—at cheap prices and celebrity cashiers, "The World's Largest Bratfest," as it is now known, has raised over $200,000 for local charities. Even more, it has given the family-owned Sentry Foods an opportunity to connect with thousands of customers who have become loyal for life.

Just five miles from the University of Wisconsin's main campus, the 52,000-square-foot Sentry Foods serves a variety of customers, including government officials, residents of the foreign housing units, retirees, college students, and two-income professionals. Leading edge technology, exceptional customer service, product variety, and creative marketing have helped make the store a market leader, but it is the independent's commitment to helping others that has allowed the company to thrive.

President Tim Metcalfe, 42, credits community involvement for much of his family's supermarket success. "We're in touch with our community on a daily basis," he says. "That's allowed us to connect emotionally with customers in ways that larger chains simply cannot."

Over the years, the Metcalfes and their associates have through the Bratfest and other efforts assisted many organizations including the Red Cross, Special Olympics, firefighters, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Madison's Domestic Violence Shelter, and youth groups, to name just a few. "Working with our customers and community leaders gives us all a sense of pride," says Metcalfe. "It's about making Madison a better place to live. At the end of the day, it feels great to know we've accomplished something good."

Something good happened at Sentry's 2002 Labor Day Bratfest. Something to the tune of 4,000 volunteers, 75,000 attendees, and $27,000 in net profits. "It's amazing how the event has captivated this community," says Metcalfe, who is Bratfest chairman. "Often, I think back to when it all began. My dad fired up his 19-inch Weber grill outside the store and treated customers to lunch. Little did he realize how one kind gesture would grow and ultimately benefit the entire community."

The Bratfests, which take place each Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend, would not be possible without the generosity of Sentry Foods. Through the years the company has invested more than $100,000 in equipment needed to stage the event. Charities use the equipment free of charge.

Participation is simple. Initially, groups complete an application form and submit it to the festival committee. Once approved, they're required to meet the following unique criteria:

•Volunteers must wear smiles and have a true love of brats.

•Volunteers must appreciate the Wisconsin heritage surrounding brats and must be committed to working "very, very hard."

•Groups must have broad community appeal and use roceeds from the event to fund their ongoing needs.

According to Metcalfe, simple is best. He reports that during the past six years the event has attracted many major sponsors and has become self-supporting. "We don't like to make things complicated. The Bratfest appears on our income statement as a separate line item, and we don't consider it a part of our advertising budget," he says.

The end result? On average, the festival generates a 20-cent net profit on each $1 meal after calculating cost of goods, supplies, advertising, and all other expenses. Proceeds are distributed to charities based on the number of volunteer hours worked on behalf of each. "The more they contribute, the more they receive," says Metcalfe. "It's simply a reciprocal of the effort."

Independent Retailing editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].
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